Caryota: Fishy Toxic Palms

Often the botanical name of a species tells you nothing about the plant. Magnolia comes to mind. It’s a person’s name. However “urens” does enlighten, Caryota urens specifically.

Multi-trunk fishtail palm

Caryota urens is the Fishtail Palm, so called because the bi-pinnated leaves resemble the back end of a fish.  Urens means “stinging” and the fruit does contain a chemical that does sting. That said, the kernel of the fruit is edible but it has to be cleaned completely of the stinging outer flesh.

One of the odd thing about the genus is when it fruits the trunk the fruit is on dies. The single trunk Caryota urens grows fast and lives to between 20 and 25 years old but when it fruits, that’s the end of it, though it can take years to die. The multi-trunk species, Caryota mitis does better and grows a source of more trunks. But, they too die, fruiting from the top down.

As a forager I am used to being told this or that species is toxic. This was one so-called toxic plant that was true. However, that did not keep natives from using this palm. The primary product of the genus is a sugar substitute called kitul honey or jaggery. The juice from the flowers is boiled in a large wide-mouth vessel making golden syrup. The fruits have raphides of calcium oxalate and are not eaten. The seed kernel is edible, however.

Fish tail looking fronds

The growing tip of the palm is also edible as is the palm heart. The sap can also be fermented. Leaves are used for animal fodder, being 2% protein and 9.3% fiber. The sheathing leaf bases provide a strong fiber for brushes. Wood is used to make spears and used like gutters or pipes to carry water.

There are about 15 species of Fishtail Palm, C. urens is used the most. C. mitis has become an invasive in Florida. The botanical name, Caryota, (kair-ree-OH-tuh) is from Greek and means “nut.” Urens (UR-ens) means burning.  Mitis (MIT-iss or MY-tis) means soft, referring to the sheathing leaf bases particularly found on the smaller species.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

Seed pulp is toxic, the kernel is edible

IDENTIFICATION: Fronds resemble fish tails. Inflorescences can grow to 10 feet long emerging at the nodes, from the top of the palm down.

TIME OF YEAR: Fruits after 15 to 25 years then continuously until it dies.

ENVIRONMENT: Prefers rich, moist soil and much sun but can tolerate some shade and dry conditions.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Sap is boiled into a syrup or fermented into wine or a spirit. The growing tip of C. urens is edible as is the heart and young leaf shoots cooked. The seed kernel of both are also edible but the pulp of the fruit of both is not. The bud of the C. mitis is edible after cooking but remains bitter.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Shanta singh October 25, 2015 at 03:45

I have four trees in my garden in Kathmandu , Nepal. And there are lots of seeds from two years back. My trees is almost 25 years old. But i don’t know for what purpose it uses and how to remove or the clean the seeds from pulp. If hand is used it burns. So please write me the best way to remove the pulp from the seeds?

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Roselyn September 18, 2014 at 19:00

Donald Trump, both our Golf Course, and promised to do something nice, and give value to our property’s, here in south Florida. fortunately he is planting this type of trees to block our houses, and day light in our back yards. Can this plants be dangerous to our kids and pets?

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Dennise February 9, 2014 at 18:25

If you eat a single berry, what can happen?

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Green Deane February 9, 2014 at 21:44

Your mouth will feel like it is burning. Lime juice might help, or lemon juice.

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sherrae collins May 15, 2013 at 10:56

are these trees toxic for dogs if they eat the berries

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Green Deane May 16, 2013 at 09:17

I would think so.

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Richard April 2, 2012 at 14:37

What do the seeds taste like? Do you have any pictures of the prepared sees. What is the best way to remove the pulp from the seeds? Is there any histical information about how the seeds are eaten or recipes for using them.

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Green Deane April 3, 2012 at 17:40

The seeds burn your mouth. They are not eaten, per se. The seeds have to be cleaned of all pulp and then the kernel removed.

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mdfairchild February 18, 2012 at 14:52

Dont some folks also make jewelry out of the mature dried seeds? Again thanks for the good info

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