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 post, I want to highlight key characteristics that I use to distinguish palm species. Palms can be separated by leaf shape, trunk type, flower, fruits and size.
How to Identify a Palm Tree Step-By-Step
Step 1: Leaf Type. When I am trying to identify a palm tree, I start with the leaves. Are the leaves fan-shaped or feather-shaped? Oher shape?
Step 2: Crownshaft. Does the palm has a crownshaft (which is elongated leaf base)? What color is the crownshaft?
Step 3: Leaf Stems. Do leaf stems have teeth? Are they smooth? What color?
Step 4: Trunk Type. How many trunks? Is the trunk smooth or covered with old leaf bases? Does it have a unique texture? Is it swollen?
Step 5: Fruits and Flowers. What color are the flower? What type of fruits it’s producing? What is the fruit color?
Step 6: Palm Size. How tall is the palm?
Palm Identification By Leaf Type
Palm leaves consist of three parts: leaf base, leaf stem, and leaf itself. The leaf base is the part where the stem attaches to the trunk. On many palms the leaf base remains on the trunk even after the frond drops off creating a distinctive pattern.
But the easiest place to start are the leaves. Palms can be categorized into three main leaf types which are: pinnate (feather-shaped), palmate (fan-shaped) and entire (simple).
Most of the palms fall into pinnate or palmate categories. simple leaf type is rare. Another two subcategories that are worth mentioning are costapalmate and bi-pannate.
- Pinnate Leaf (Feather-shaped)
- Palmate Leaf (Fan-shaped)
- Costapalmate Leaf
- Bi-Pinnate Leaf
- Entire Leaf (Simple)
1. Pinnate Leaf (Feather-shaped)
Pinnate (Feather like) fronds consist of separate long leaflets that grown from the central stalk. Some of the popular palm trees with pinnate leaves are Buccaneer Palm, Majesty Palm, Queen Palm, Date Palm, Christmas Palm, and King Palm.
2. Palmate Leaf (Fan-shaped)
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 Everglades Palm, European Fan Palm, Windmill Palm, Florida Thatch Palm, Silver Palm and Ruffled Fan Palm.
3. Costapalmate Leaf
While the Costapalmate palms are a subcategory of the fan-shaped palm, they look like a cross between palmate and pinnate. They have a short midrib instead of a center point from which the leaf segments radiate.
They are often twisted and folded sharply along the tip of the of the leaf stem. Some of the palms with costapalmate leaf types are Blue Latan Palm, Red Latan Palm, Fiji Fan Palm, Chinese Fan Palm, Mexican Fan Palm, and Mazari Palm.
4. Bi-Pinnate Leaf
These palms have a secondary leaf stem that is attached to the primary one, and the leaflets are connected to the secondary stem at regular intervals. This type of palms are very rare occurring only in single type of palm called Fishtail Palm (Caryota).
5. Entire Leaf
Also a very rare is a entire (simple) leaf type which composed of a single leaflet or a blade. It’s not divided and doesn’t have individual leaflets. A good example are Joey Palm and Miniature Fishtail Palm.
Palm Identification By Crownshaft
On some palms leaf bases create a waxy and smooth structure called crownshaft. 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. Palms with crownshaft tend to be “self cleaning” meaning the dying leaves fall to the ground without pruning.
Palm Identification By Leaf Stems
Leaf stems can also be an identifying factor since they can also vary in color, size and formation. Some can be armed with sharp teeth along the edges. Traveler’s Palm and Triangle Palm have very unique leaf formation at the base reminding me of the peacock tail.
Bismarck Palm has a very large dramatic crown with distinctive silver-green leaf stems and fronds. Taraw Palm, Bailey’s Copernicia Palm, and Date Palm all have stems with sharp spines along the margins.
Palm Identification By Trunk Type
With over 2,500 palm species, you can find any trunk imaginable. Trunks differ in size, color, shape, number of trunks, texture and other characteristics.
Let’s start with number of trunks. Palms can have three different trunk types: solitary trunk, multi-trunk or even no trunk.
Solitary Trunk Palms
Most palms have single trunk. Some of the most popular palms with single trunk are Foxtail palm, Blue Hesper Palm, Princess Palm, and Bismarck Palm.
Usually, multi-trunk palms are shorter and grow slower. A good sample would be a Seashore Palm and Lady Palm. Both are slow growing shrubby looking plants. They are great for creating a privacy wall and can also be used for foundation plantings and in outdoor tubs and planters.
Acai Palm and Areca Palm growth rate is faster, but are both clustering palms with straight clean trunks.
No Trunk Palms
Some palms develop a small trunk after many many years or have no trunk at all like Cat Palm and Needle Palm.
Palms With Self Cleaning Trunks
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 crisscross pattern. A good example of palms with “self cleaning” trunks are Carpentaria palm, Alexander Palm. A “self cleaning” means the leaves fall off without pruning.
Old Leaf Bases Trunks
After leaves die, they drop off sometimes leaving a leaf base. Some of the palms with trunks covered with old leaf bases are Cabbage Palm, Sylvester Date Palm, Caranday Palm, and Date Palm. These trunks looks especially attractive when regularly pruned.
Different Trunk Texture
Texture of the trunks also vary. There are palms that have fiber covering, peg-like leaf bases or even spines. Old Man Palm has a trunk covered with fibers, hence its common name.
The thickness of the trunk can also differ. Bottle Palm, for example, has a smooth bottle shaped trunk that is wider at the bottom. Cuban Belly Palm’s trunk is thin at the base and swollen in the middle, hence its common name.
Spindle Palm has a ridged trunk that is narrow at the base and widens in the middle resembling a spindle. Ponytail palm has a swollen at the base trunk that stores water making it highly drought tolerant.
Palm Identification By 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. Most of them not edible except for some. Fruits can come in any color and is also a good identification characteristic.
Palms With Edible Fruits
The six palms below are the most popular palms with edible fruits. Coconut Palm is one of the most recognizable palms around the world because of its fruits “coconuts”. Date Palm is widely known for it’s sweet fruits “dates” which have high nutritional value and are important source of food in some countries.
Acai Palm produces black-purple tasty fruits that are packed full of antioxidants, amino acids and essential omegas. Jelly Palm produces orange fruits that has sweet pineapple/banana like flavor and are great for making jelly.
Not as popular as other palms, Saw Palmetto Palm produced black-blue berries that are used to make medicine for kidney, prostate urinary problems. Guadalupe Palm produces small black fruits with a taste resembling dates.
Palm Identification By 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.
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.
With so many palm tree types, identifying a palm can be challenging. Start with the fronds which should be the easiest part. Next, look at the trunk and the stems. Then, look at the fruits it’s producing.
Finally, 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.