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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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