How to Identify Palm Trees

With over 2,500  species, it can be challenging to identify a palm tree. So, it is not surprising that I get a lot of emails asking for help with palm tree identification. Since different palms require different care, it is important to know its species. Some palms like a lot of sun and warm climate, others prefer shade and can tolerate cold temperatures. In my opinion, cold tolerance is one of the most important characters of the palm, since it can make a huge difference in the location it can be grown.

When buying a palm from a home improvement store or a garden center, keep in mind, that it can be mislabeled. That is one of the reasons I always recommend buying palms from a reputable nursery.

In this article, I want to highlight key characteristics that I use to distinguish palm species. They can be separated by leaf shape, trunk type, flower, fruits and size. Additionally, trunks can have different shape and texture.

Fronds

One of the first things I look at are fronds. There are two types of leaves: pinnate (feather like) and palmate (fan-shaped).

Feather like fronds consist of separate long leaflets that grown from the central stalk. Some of the popular palm trees with pinnate leaves are Areca Palm, Coconut Palm, Queen Palm, and Date Palm.

palm_tree_identificaiton

Fan-shaped fronds radiate from a central point along the stem like fingers on your hand.  Some of the popular palms with fan-shaped leaves are Bismarck Palm, Mexican Fan Palm and Windmill Palm. Color of the fronds can also vary from green  to blue-green to silvery. Bismark Palm has large dramatic crown with very distinct silver-green leaves.

palm_tree_identificaiton1

One of the interesting palms, that is worth mentioning, is Flame Thrower Palm. Its main feature is a spectacular bright red leaflet that emerges from the dark green crown and lasts for about 2 weeks.

Trunk

Palms can have solitary trunk or  multi-trunk. Usually, multi-trunk palms are shorter and grow slower. A good sample would be a Needle Palm and Lady Palm. Both are slow growing shrubby looking palms. They are great for creating a privacy wall and can also be used for foundation plantings and in outdoor tubs and planters.

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Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa)

Furthermore, trunk surfaces also vary. Some have a smooth surface covered with scars from old leaves, others have rough surface that is covered with old leaf bases in a criss-cross pattern. There are also palm trees, like Old Man Palm, that have trunks covered with fibers.

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While most palm trees have straight trunks, there are also some, like Coconut Palm, that have tapered trunks. The thickness of the trunk can also differ. Bottle Palm for example has a smooth bottle shaped trunk that is wider at the bottom.

Some palms also have a crownshaft, which is elongated leaf base. Crownshaft can differ in color from the trunk, like in case of a Lipstick Palm that has striking red crownshaft or a King Palm that has reddish purple crownshaft.

King Palm

Purple King Palm (Archontophoenix purpurea)

Flowers and Fruits

Palms have very insignificant flowers that range in color from yellowish-green to light green. Generally, they grow in clusters on the long stems among the canopy or from below the crown shaft. Flowers are usually followed by fruits that come as berries or nuts. Coconut Palm is one of the most recognizable palms because of its delicious fruit ‘Coconut’. Fruits can come in any color.

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Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

Size

Palms come in different sizes. Some small palms, also called dwarf, can only reach 10 ft. Others can get very tall up to 100ft.  While small palms usually are slow growing, tall palms grow at a faster rate. The older the palm, the easier it is to identify. Young trees that are only a few months old, have not developed their distinct features and all look the same.

queen palm seed3 Queen Palm Tree   Syagrus romanzoffiana

Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) – 5 months old

Local Palms

After you narrow down the parameters, look  to see if you can find a similar trees around. Most likely, the palm you are trying to identify is common for you area. Exotic palms like Old Man Palm are rare and expensive. Look at the palm pictures on our web site or go to Google images. On my site, I tried to post the most popular palm trees in Florida. If that doesn’t help, create a post on my forum under ‘Palm Tree Identificatoin’ section. You can also send me an email with a link to the photos of your tree and we’ll try to figure it out together.

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Palms Characteristics

As you can see, each palm has its own features that make it unique. Here are some of the characteristics for the popular palms I’ve mentioned above.

Areca Palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens) – Multi-trunk  palm that grows in clusters forming think clumps. It has yellow-green feather-like leaves. Produces bright yellow flowers that are followed by yellow-orange berries. It can grow up to 20ft tall.

Bottle Palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis) – The main characteristic of this tree is its bottle shaped single trunk. It has bright green crownshaft with feather-like  green leaves. Produces small white flowers that are followed by black berries. This is a dwarf palm that can only grow up to 15ft tall.

Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera) – This palm of course is most known for its delicious coconuts. It has single smooth trunk and feather-like fronds. Produces sweet-scented yellow flowers that are followed by brown coconuts. Can grow up to 100 ft.

Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera) – Single trunk covered with ornamental diamond-shaped pattern of leaf scars.  Feather-like dark green fronds. Produces white or yellow flowers that are followed by edible fruit, called ‘dates’. This is a large tree that can grow up to 50ft tall.

Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) – Smooth single trunk, feather-like fronds. Produces creamy flowers that are followed by orage fruits. This is very inexpenisve tree that is widely used in tropical climates. It can quickly grow up to 40ft.

Old Man Palm (Coccothrinax crinita) – This is  a rare and very expensive tree that is known for its fiber covered trunk which looks like a beard of an old man. It has  fan-shaped, stiff fronds. Produces yellow flowers that are followed by dark purple fruits. Grows up to 20ft tall.

~Susan Brian

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Comments

  1. Mark Jones says

    Dear Sir/Madam
    Would it be possible to email some photos of our Palm in the hope that you can identify it?

    Many thanks

    Mark Jones

  2. gail trenholm says

    once again. I am wondering what kind of palm tree this is. a neighbor gave me a cutting of one of her palms. I love this palm and wanted the cutting. it has green front with dark or purpleish backing to the fronds

  3. Holly Reynolds says

    Fantastic website. Thank you so much! This will be really helpful to those who know nothing at all about how to garden in Florida.

  4. Ashley says

    Hey I’m Ashley! My husband and I live in Duluth Minnesota right now but are planning on moving down to Sarasota Florida in the summer of 2016, we are very excited. We plan on having roots down did I mention we are excited?!?!?! ☺ I was looking up palm trees and came a cross yours. Its very well explained and I will continue to learn more. I do have tree well its my moms but I think its mine. Well anyway its a plant but its looks like a miniature tiny palm tree maybe a foot half. I would like to send you a picture of it. I don’t know what kinda plant it is, its adorable though. Well thanks for your time!

    Ashley

  5. Angela says

    I need help identifying a palm tree with berries that’s growing in my backyard. I recently bought a house in this palm tree was already there. Is there a way I can send you a picture to help identify it?

  6. Ana says

    I would like to buy these Palm trees, but I don’t know their name. Please help me to identify them.
    1) About 10 feet tall, fan shaped leaves, cluster of blue berry fruit.
    2) about 10 feet tall, fan shaped leaves, coconut fruit, yellow cluster flowers. Both Survive in Washington state (cold, rain, zone 9)
    Thank you

  7. sharon jones says

    hi I have two palms I think are canary palms I had from a ggod garden centre which said that’s what they are ..they have some sharp leaves on them and it grows from a single trunk ..is it a canary palm please and will they grow fruit ive got hem in tubs ..thankyou..Sharon…

  8. Michele says

    I have a palm tree in my yard that nobody can identify and it’s been here for probably 30 years and it just started to seed and I wanted to see if somebody could identify it because nobody from the Palm Society in the past has been able to

  9. michael says

    I’m moving to srbring , Fl in a week and would like to know what palm trees I can grow there? I love queen,king,royal& foxtail & almost all tropical flowers, as Canna’s, bird of Paradise, and the many different banana palms. Thank you for any information you can provide and if the trees and plants I’ve mentioned can be grown in that part of Florida? And any suggestions.

  10. kathy kelley says

    looking to buy or grow a small palm tree and transport it to NH ( in Summer) and back to Florida in Winter.. thank you.

  11. Paula Arenz says

    I recently moved to Florida. We gave a Palm in landscape and I have no idea what type, how big it gets, if previous owner planted in good location, how fast it grows, etc.
    I am looking for tall palms for back yard and a relatively large taller palm as focal piece near front door in landscape. Can I send picture of tree and you give me suggestions?

    Also any suggestions on palms would be greatly appreciated. We are 34613 zip. So not sure what trees are appropriate for this area. I like the tall trees with dark, stiff, type fronds..I also like the multi-trunk (2-3) in grandmother’s yard. And the type that has bottle type trunk.

    Please help. If I know where to send pics for your help.

    Thanks

  12. Cameron caruso-Randall says

    On your Florida-Palm-trees.com site it would be nice if maybe you put another section on what palm species produce edible fruit/nuts/berries, and then maybe you can have another spin off of that page and have another on how to process them for at home consumption, How to tell when they are at peak ripeness, and maybe a little historical facts about each species like where it originates from, (country and culture/religious history of the species) and lastly what kind of recipes/dishes are favored by there native lands people, for a little bit of multicultural expiraments that may indulge the minds and taste buds of the Americas and beyond! Just a friendly suggestion :) I look forward to hopefully hearing from you and coversing about palms!

  13. Cameron caruso-Randall says

    Me again! Just forget to say this in last post, I live in a zone 3/4 area, (Northern Vermont) the only palms I can grow are first-of-all indoors or in greenhouse/conservatory which I don’t have the latter two, wish I did but I have a pony tailed Palm and am thinking about buying from Logee’s greenhouse and nursery a dwarf date palm that I never new existed so really excited that it can fit in my home aswell as produce edible fruit! I love tropical palms/plants/edible exotic fruit-bearing plants but am restricted right now to living in this freezer! Maybe, since the earth is getting warmer the zones will change up north in my life time and I’ll get to grow something outside that’s more exotic like the cool palms you produce and provide. This is probably just a fantasy, hopefully we make change to the environment before it gets this bad!!
    Roughly how long (in years) does it take for a ponytail Palm that’s 6″ tall from soil level to top of greenery to grow to about ceiling height (mine is 8′ tall) ish?

  14. Al Rouyer says

    I live part-time in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and my hobby is identifying trees. I have been having a hard time identifying some palm trees and your article came up in my search. I found it very helpful. Can you give me some clues to distinguish among King palms and distinguish them from Royal, Fox tail and Queen. They all have crown shafts and look alike to me at first glance. I think I have Royals down because of the swelling in middle of the trunk. Some ‘keys’ and internet sources would be helpful.

    Al Rouyer

  15. Kathy says

    I visited Fort Myers, FL recently, and found some beautiful rope/braid-like “pods(?)” under a tree. They average about 10-12 inches long. Most are brown, but some were still green. I have pictures of them, but I didn’t think to get a picture of the tree itself. The closest thing I’ve been able to find on the internet is the Fishtail Palm, however, I don’t think that’s it. Does anyone know what kind of tree it could be?

  16. David says

    How can I distinguish between a Phoenix dactylifera and Phoenix canariensis? They look exactly alike, and I’m even more confused when it’s a male date palm because then it’s identical to the canary island palm.

    Thanks

  17. Jordan says

    I can’t figure out what is wrong with my palm tree. Can I send you a picture.

    Thanks

  18. Wayne Hawn says

    I have searched and searched but cannot identify my palm. I have taken some pictures I can send your way if you respond.
    Thanks

  19. Marilyn Robertson says

    I was given a small palm tree 3 years ago. It had a single trunk and 3 leaves. About 3 ft tall. It now has 8 trunks and is about 12 ft tall. It has bluish fronds like my Bismarkia. It is throwing long sprays of oddly shaped seeds. I think that it must be some sort of branching palm, but doesn’t seem to fit into all of the criteria for any one tree. I live in BCS Mexico, so we have lots of heat and sun, but are actually a desert environment. I can send photos if you think you can help me identify this lovely palm, thank you
    Marilyn

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