NZ Palms, Cycads and Subtropical Plants

Fishtail Palms and Unusual Palms for New Zealand.

Plumose Foxtail palm (Wodyetia bifurcata) in Thailand
Mature Himalayan Fishtail Palm (Caryota maxima)
Leaf detail of the Giant Fishtail Palm (Caryota gigas)
Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) showing plumose leaves

In addition to feather-leaf and fan palms there exists a third variety of palms: Fishtail palms. As the name suggests fishtail palms (scientifically speaking, bipinnate palms) have a curious leaf structure which resembles the tail of a fish. Caryota is the only well-known genus of fishtail palms in cultivation. With one exception all Caryotas are solitary. Best of all however a number of Caryota species are both fast growers and suitable for New Zealand’s climate. What we particularly like about fishtail palms is that they look like nothing else in the palm world – a truly unique palm that, despite being in cultivation for many years in New Zealand, is still a relative unknown.

© NZ Palms, Cycads and Subtropical Plants 2019

Picking up on this theme, Caryota maxima, The Himalayan Fishtail Palm, has the size and structure of the Queen Palm yet, if anything, it’s a faster grower. In terms of its appearance however it’s an infinitely better looking palm that should be grown in the hundreds of thousands across New Zealand. We’ve seen tall specimens looking in fine shape after a winter of howling south-westerly winds straight off the Tasman Sea.


Caryotas are monocarpic. That is, after they flower and set seed they die. This is however offset by a large crop of valuable seeds. Since Caryota palms live for 15-25 years we advocate planting a new palm every ten years in order to maintain at least one large plant.


Two great species of Caryota for New Zealand are the tall Himalayan Fishtail Palm, Caryota maxima and the Giant Fishtail Palm, Caryota gigas.


We’re not done however. There are a number of palms which still don’t fit into any of the other categories. Strictly speaking all of these are feather-leaf (pinnate) palms but they either look like fishtails or something quite different from any other palm. Since there’s no distinct scientific grouping of these palms we’ll call them ‘unusual palms’.

A slightly less exotic example of an ‘unusual palm’ is the Queen Palm, Syagrus romanzoffiana. This is because of the spiral arrangement of the leaflets which creates a plume-like appearance. Nowadays we’re all used to the Queen Palm but it created quite a stir when it was popularised in New Zealand in the early 1990’s. More exotic (and unfortunately more tropical) is the Foxtail Palm (Wodyetia bifurcata). The good news however is that more temperate palms exist in this special category. Most are still difficult to obtain but that’s not to say they can’t be grown here.