Photo by Melody

For the thousandth time, it's NOT a palm

By Geoff Stein (palmbobSeptember 12, 2008

Sometimes palms are not palms. This article is for those that don't know what I mean by that.

Gardening picture

Perhaps because my Davesgarden name is Palmbob, I get a lot of D-mail asking me questions about many folk's plants- usually something called a palm. But not always a palm. Fortunately I happen to know a little bit about many of the other plants with the palm name as most are also interesting in some way or another so I can fake my way through most questions. But it is important to know what is a palm and what is NOT one, as most non-palms need different care than do most palms.

When I first began to learn about palms 10 years ago I rebelled against the scientific naming of my plants as that was not how I was raised up to that point in my life. Surely all these palms had common names, too... why waste my time learning the scientific names? Well, turns out 99% of palms in the world do NOT have common names (though the folks at Davesgarden are pretty good at coming up with something for a lot of the ones I have added, however obscure). A bunch of us newbie palm growers even began to make up our own common names for some of the palms we liked best, but this just confused everyone we talked to... And eventually I gave in and learned the scientific names to the palms (and all other plants I was growing). And now I seem to know ONLY the scientific names of most plants I deal with. So when someone asks me about various ‘palms' using a common name I am often unprepared to help them as I have no idea what most plant's common names are. Often these ‘palms' turn out to be succulents, cycads etc. or some other totally NON-palm plant. I would like to urge all of you readers to learn the scientific names to your plants you like as discussing plants by their latin names actually decreases the confusion (opposite of what I used to think)- most plants have only one latin name (sadly this is not true all the time - plants are always being moved about by the taxonomists and assigned new names every 20 years or so)... but many plants have lots of common names... and many different plants share common names to make the confusion even worse.

Some of the most frequent questions concern the husbandry of one's bottle palm (there is such a palm as a bottle palm, but what they are almost always referring to is a completely unrelated succulent known as a Beaucarnea), or Madagascan Palm (there are hundreds of true palms from Madagascar... but they are never asking about any of them- they are asking about a Pachypodium, a spiny succulent from Madagascar that is not even closely related to a true palm). I get inquiries about cabbage palms (of which there are dozens of true palms with this moniker... but usually they are asking about a Cordyline of some sort, another completely NON-palm plant). But by far the most commonly referred to ‘palm' is the Sago Palm (and, again, there IS a true palm called the Sago Palm- a Metroxylon species)... but this is a Cycad, not a palm, and not even remotely closely related to palms. I never give people a hard time about these annoying common names as I remember when I was in their shoes. But it worries me when someone acquires a ‘palm' and then starts treating it like a palm... and rots it to death. These experiences not only create a lot of disappointment, but can give true palms a bad reputation (OK, so this really is not a big deal, but it still bugs me). Seems that just about any plant that grows on a thick, solitary stalk and has a head of simple leaves radiating out in all directions is called a palm by someone.

If you're curious what sorts of plants are called palms that are NOT palms, just put the word PALM in the plantfiles common name slot here on Davesgarden and click search... or go here. As you can see, three of the first four plants that come up are not palms (a Beaucarnea, a Cycad and a Papyrus). You would think these would be listed last on this long list, but I really have no clue why the order is what it is in the plantfiles. The first page includes another cycad, and aroid, a couple Pachypodiums, two Yuccas, and a banana relative. Barely half the plants on this first search page are true palms. It's no wonder people are confused!

The following are just a few of the plants that are NOT palms... but called palms.

Pony Tail Palms- these are Beaucarneas, which are related to Agaves, not palms. They are only called palms because of their solitary (sometimes- these plants can often have multiple trunks as well as branches) stems and simple head of grass-like leaves. These really don't look all that much like palms to me, and they certainly shouldn't be treated like palms. These plants are succulents with huge, fat water-storing bases. Most are not suited to being given a lot of water or they will rot. Other non-palm like characteristic includes their being able to regenerate from having their heads chopped off (something few true palms can survive), and these chopped off heads being able to be easily rooted to form another plant. Fortunately there are no TRUE palms with the name 'Pony Tail Palm' so the confusion is only moderate for this common name.

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Beaucarnea recurvata and gracilis are two species often referred to as Pony Tail Palms, though clearly neither are even remotely related to palms (and not even sure why Beaucarnea gracilis would be called a Pony Tail Palm anyway... have you ever seen a spikey tail like that on a pony?).

Bottle Palms are another name for Beaucarneas. Unfortunately there IS a real palm called the Bottle Palm, too, and this confusion can be a real problem as the two are nearly at the opposite end of the cultivational spectrum (one is a desert, drought tolerant, moderately cold tolerant succulent, while the other is a tropical, water-needy palm, Hyophorbe lagenicaulis).

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Bottle 'Palms' Beaucarnea stricta and Beaucarnea recurvatas, in the desert gardens

Image The TRUE Bottle Palm, Hyophorbe lagenicaulis

Sago Palms- as I mentioned already, there are some true palms called Sago palms (the Metroxylons), called such because one can derive and edible starch from their trunks called ‘sago'. But most people who do any landscaping know the Sago Palm as the cycad Cycas revoluta (actually there are several Cycas species with this moniker- Queen Sago Palms are either Cycas circinalis, or Cycas rumphii; Prince Sago Palms are Cycas taitungensis). Cycads are more closely related to pine trees than to palm trees as they are non-flower producing plants. Their reproductive structures are cones, not flowers, so they are pretty distantly related to palms- about as far as you can get and still be a large plant. Fortunately Cycas species seem to have a pretty close relationship to palms cultivationally so watering one like one would a palm will rarely get one into trouble. But still, there are quite a number of other important differences in terms of root, caudex (trunk) and leaf care.

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                    Sago palm (Cycas revoluta)                                    Queen Sago Palm (Cycas rumphii)

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    Cycas circinalis (another Queen Sago 'Palm')              Cycas taitungensis, aka Prince Sago 'Palm'

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    the TRUE Sago Palms, Metroxylon sagu and Metroxylon warburgii

Cardboard Palms are also actually cycads (Zamia furfuracea) but they, too, can handle water as easily as a Cycas species, if not more so. Still, NOT a palm, or even close! This one doesn't even look that much like a palm so I am not sure how they came up with the name.


Zamia furfuracea, the Cardboard 'Palm'. Does this even remotely look like a palm?

I was quite amazed to see Royal Palm listed as a species of cycad as well (Dioon caputoi- about the least palm like of all the Dioons). Not sure where that name came up, either, but fortunately most think of a true palm when they hear they name Royal Palm (the Roystonea genus, though some other palms are also called Royal palms for some reason).


Dioon caputoi- aka Royal 'Palm' (does this look like a palm to you... or 'royal'?)

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Two REAL Royal Palms, Roystonea borinquenia and Roystonia oleracea

I learned recently that Gum Palms are the common name for Dioon spinulosums, a great and somewhat palm-like cycad from Mexico. But NOT a palm. However, this plant can be grown somewhat like a palm in that it has a lot of the same cultivational needs (lots of water, fertilizer and sunshine). As far as I know, there is no real palm called a Gum Palm.

Image Dioon spinulosums (aka Gum Palms) looking somewhat palm like?

Another cycad withe a palm name is Encephalartos cerinus, the Blue Wax Palm. To me it looks very little like a palm, and is an easy plant to rot if you water it like a palm. True Wax palms are in the Ceroxylon genus and are massive, tall South American palms with thick, waxy coats on their trunks.

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Encephalartos cerinus (aka Blue Wax Palm) and REAL Wax Palms (Ceroxylon alpinum and Ceroxylon ventricosum)

When one is discussing Cabbage Palms, one might be referring to a variety of real palms (Sabals, Livistonas, Acoelorrhaphe, Roystonea altissima and Prestoea acuminata). All these palms are called so because the ‘cabbage' or new growth at the top of the palm may be, or at one time been, eaten. All palms have ‘cabbage' so why some get called Cabbage Palms and others do not is beyond me. Either way, Cabbage Palm is also the common name applied to many varieties of Cordyline, a succulent-like tree in the Agave family. These are solitary to branched woody-stemmed plants with agave-like heads. I have rotted many myself trying to water them like palms, so I would be carefully to learn that these are NOT palms and treat them more like Agaves. Perhaps the tops of these plants are edible for their ‘cabbage' as well?

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              two cultivars of Cordylie australis (aka Cabbage 'Palms')

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          Livistona australis (Cabbage Palm)                                 Sabal palmettos (Cabbage Palms)

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       Livistona mariae (Cabbage Palm) Prestoea acuminata 'montana', another Cabbage Palm

Umbrella Palm is a name for a species of Papyrus that is really a glorified water grass with a pom-pom on top. But Umbrella Palm is also the name of one of my favorite palms, Hedyscepe canterburyana, a beauty from the Lord Howe Islands off Australia. The two could hardly be more unalike, though admittedly these two are more closely related than just about any other double monikers on this list (palms are also related to grasses).

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a Cyperus sp. (Papyrus) aka Umbrella Palm; Hedyscepe canterburyana, the TRUE Umbrella Palm

Most often when one thinks of Madagascar Palms, they are really thinking of the bizarre succulents (from Madagascar) with fat, intensely spiny trunks and a simple rosette of lancelote leaves at the top... not very palm- like if you ask me, but the basic shape is the same I guess. Though these are great plants and I have a number in the yard, they are very poor plants to go about treating like palms as they will rot in front of your eyes if you water them like one. The can also be beheaded to grow more branches, unlike the case with true palms. There are hundreds of true palms from Madagascar, by the way, though I am only aware of one actually called a Madagascan Palm (Dypsis pinnatifrons) and one called Madagascar Palm (Dypsis lutescens, which has a LOT of other misleading common names as well) -only a handful of all true palms from Madagascar have common names.

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            Pachypodium lamerei and geayi (not very palm-like to me)

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Dypsis lutescens, the Madagascar Palm; Dyspsi pinnatifrons, the Madagascan Palm, and Lemurophoenix, another palm from Madagascar

The name Aroid Palm sort of gives away the fact that this plant, Zamioculcas zamiifolia, is NOT a palm at all, but an aroid. It is a common house plant and a succulent as well, but this one does even begin to look like a palm (multiple rubber, succulent stems covered with ‘non-palm-like' leaves). So not sure where that name came from.


Zamioculcas- To me this is the least palm-like 'palm' of the entire group

There are several Alocasias (also aroids) also called Persian Palms. The only true Persian Palm (not the common name for it, though) is Nannorhops, a super-drought tolerant, rugged palm from Iran, Iraq and the surrounding countries. This time it's the true palm that should be treated more like a succulent rather than the other way around. To me, Alocasias do not resemble palms any more than boat oar does.

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Alocasia macrorhiza (aka Persian Palm- not from Persia, by the way); and a true palm from Persia, Nannorrhops ritchiana

Another aroid, Armophophallus, has a few species that have the common name Snake Palm, presumably for the reptilian splotching along their perfectly tubular (and snake-like) stems? There is also a true Snake Palm, Salacca zalacca, a very different spiny suckering palm from Asia. Why it's called the Snake Palm I have no idea.

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Amorphophallus krociana (photo by skilledwithhands), aka Snake Palm (does this look like a palm to you?) and Salacca zalacca, the TRUE Snake Palm

Needle Palms are a US native species of palm and are probably the world's most cold hardy palms species (Rhapidophyllum hystrix). This is a water-needy species. Some Trithrinax species are also called needle palms as well. These needle palms are called such because they have needle-like projections from their trunks that can be very sharp. But many species of Yucca are also called Needle Palms, but are in the Agave family and have needle-like leaves instead of trunk thorns. I had never heard of any Yuccas being referred to as palms (I guess most can tell these apart at least) and they should certainly not be treated like any.

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                     Yucca's filamentosa and rigida (aka Needle 'Palms')

Image Rhapidophyllum hystrix, THE Needle Palm

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          Trithrinax campestris and Trithrinax brasiliensis, also called Needle Palms

There is another Yucca species, Yucca filifera, a monster of a tree, that is also known as the Peter Palm (no idea why)... there is no true palm counterpart for this plant.

Image Yucca filifera, a humongous species- not very palm like to me!

The Hat Palm is a Sabal species which has leaves that have been used in the past (and still today?) as thatch and making hats. But Carludovica palmata is also referred to as a Hat Palm by some and it is NOT a palm (though treating this like a palm can't hurt it). This is a grass-like plant that has leaves that actually look extremely palm-like. Most not very familiar with palms could easily mistake this for a true palm. And fortunately its needs are basically palm-like, so mixing this one up as a palm won't hurt it any.

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Carludovica palmata, aka Hat Palm or Hat Plant; the TRUE Hat Palm, Sabal causarium

Travelers Palm is a relative of the bananas and Strelitzias (Bird of Paradise) and NOT a palm. But Ravenala madagascariensis is grown a lot like one and is a fantastic looking tree (in the right climate), so most palm nuts with the right environment also grow these plants if they have the room.


Ravenala madagascariensis (aka Travelers Palm) is the plant most commonly misidentified as a palm

A curious and endangered succulent plant native to Hawaii, Brighamia insignis, is also called the Vulcan Palm. I have no idea why, but at least there are no TRUE Vulcan Palms out there.

Image Brighamia insignis, aka the Vulcan 'Palm'

So if you are in the habit of using common names and like palms, be sure what you are getting is really a palm, and not just something called a palm. It could save you the hassle or replacing a plant or two.

  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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