Fishtail palms (Caryota mitis) make wonderful indoor trees. They are originally from Southeast Asia but have become established in South Florida and in Puerto Rico.
The fishtail palm has green fronds that resemble the tail of an ornamental goldfish, hence the name. Each frond can reach 6 ½ -13 feet long. The tree has lavender flowers when it reaches maturity at about ten years old. The flowers first appear at the top of the stem and then further down the stem’s length. After flowering, the stem dies and should be removed. The palm clump will produce more flowering stems, however. After the flowers are spent, the tree goes into decline.
How to Care for the Fishtail Palm
Fishtail palms can reach six to ten feet indoors. They are slow-growing and are moderately difficult to keep alive.
Fishtail palms have shallow roots. Because the tree gets so large, it needs a large, heavy pot so it will not tip over. Make sure the pot has drainage holes. It is a good idea to get a pot with wheels so you can move the tree if you need to.
Place your palm near a window. Fishtail palms need lots of bright, indirect sunlight to grow well. They will tolerate less light but won’t do as well. These trees do not do well with artificial sources of light but require sun.
These trees require well-drained soil. Use a cactus potting soil for your palm. Alternatively, you can mix one part of regular potting mix with one part of perlite.
Fishtail palms require a lot of water. Water the tree when the top of the soil dries out. Water until water runs out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. After 15 minutes, empty the water out of the saucer at the base of the pot so the roots will not rot. In the winter, water the palm tree twice a month.
Fishtail palms love humidity. You will need to use a humidifier in the room or to mist the leaves several times a day. If the leaves turn yellow, then the humidity around the tree is too low.
These trees are finicky about their temperature. They grow best in day temperatures of 70-80 degrees F and nighttime temperatures about ten degrees lower. During the winter, they need temperatures of 55 to 60 degrees F. If the temperature gets below 45 degrees F, the tree will die.
During the growing season, fertilize with a weak mixture of a water-soluble fertilizer formulated for palm trees. Fertilize every four weeks. Too much fertilizer will kill your plant. Do not fertilize during winter.
Dust the leaves of your fishtail palm once a week. Do not use leaf polish or anything other than a dry cloth as you will injure the tree. Turn the tree a quarter turn once a week, so the trunk doesn’t curve toward the light. Inspect your palm for pests and diseases.
Fishtail palms do not usually need pruning. If there are broken branches, cut them off where they meet the trunk. After a stem flowers, it will die back and should be pruned off. If your tree is growing too tall, you can cut off the top two or three inches of the tree to keep it from getting taller.
Every two to three years, you will need to take the tree out of its pot and shake the potting soil off the roots. Put fresh potting mix in the pot and put the tree back in its pot. If the plant is still growing, put the plant in a pot one size up. Fishtail palms like to be slightly rootbound, so don’t put it in too large a pot.
Propagating a Fishtail Palm
You can plant seeds to propagate the fishtail palm or divide the plant. Seeds are not easy to come by, but you can plant them an inch deep in potting mix in a small pot. Keep the soil moist but not soggy until the seed germinates. They also need to be kept warm. It can take three weeks for the seed to germinate.
Fishtail palms form suckers around the main trunk. To propagate from division, simply pull the tree out of its pot, find one the suckers with roots, and cut it off the main trunk. Make sure you take as many roots as you can. Plant the sucker in a new pot and water the plant in.
Diseases of Fishtail Palms
Fishtail palms do not suffer from many diseases.
The roots will rot if the soil is soggy, or if the saucer has water standing in it. Allowing the soil to dry out on the top between waterings will help prevent rot, as well.
Bacterial Leaf Blight
Bacterial leaf blight (Acidovorax avenae subsp. avenae also known as Pseudomonas avenae) causes small, water-soaked lesions running beside leaf veins. These lesions are translucent to light yellow or light brown. Mature lesions become brown or black and may have a yellow halo. Cut off infected leaves and discard them in the trash. Reduce misting the other leaves and let the soil dry out between waterings. The disease spreads by infected soil being splashed on the leaves when they are watered. Use only sterile potting mix to avoid having this disease introduced into your home.
Pests of Fishtail Palms
Fishtail palms do not get aphids but do get other pests that are common in houseplants.
For some reason, fishtail palms are very vulnerable to spider mites. Look for webbing on the underside of the palm fronds. You may also see small mites that resemble spiders. They like to hide where the stem meets the trunk. To combat them, put the tree in the shower, if it will fit, and wash as many of the mites and webs off as you can. After that, use insecticidal soap or neem oil and coat the entire tree. You will need to do this once a week until you stop seeing webbing or spider mites. Spider mites need dry, warm conditions. If you keep the area around the palm humid and water it appropriately, you can reduce the likelihood of having spider mites infest your palm tree.
Soft-bodied scale is also a problem in fishtail palms. You will see brown lumps on the stem or trunk. The leaves often turn yellow or die due to heavy infestations of these insects. They can also cause stunted growth when they feed on the growth tip of the leaves and trunk. Scale insects are hard to treat because the waxy scale prevents pesticides from reaching the rest of the insect. Treating the tree with neem oil will suffocate them. You will need to treat the tree once a week until all the insects and eggs are gone. Prune away the damaged leaves and put them in a trash bag, seal it, and discard it in the trash can. You don’t want the scale to spread.
Mealybugs are small oval insects covered with a white waxy substance. They may have white tufts sticking out from the edges of their body. Mealybugs feed by sucking the sap out of the palm leaves. This causes the leaf to turn yellow, be stunted, and in severe cases, die. In addition, mealybugs excrete honeydew, a sweet sticky substance. Sooty mold frequently grows on the honeydew. Treating mealybugs is hard because the waxy coating protects them from most pesticides. As with scale, insecticidal soap will wash away the waxy coating on mealybugs and they will dry out and die.
In conclusion, fishtail palms make nice indoor trees, especially if you place them in a solarium or other place where they get bright, indirect sunlight. Keep them moist, fertilize them regularly during the growing season, and inspect them weekly. In return, you will have years of pleasure watching this palm grow.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, the fishtail palm is toxic. The sap can cause a rash when it touches the skin or mucus membranes. The fruit of the palm is very toxic. Use gloves when handling the fruit or pruning the palm tree to avoid problems. Do not let children or pets around the plant, especially when it has berries.
You can buy a transplant at a nursery or online. Seeds are harder to find and are generally only available online.
Yes, if you can find seeds. You will probably have to order the seeds online.
The fishtail palm takes about ten years to mature. Inside, it will get six to thirteen feet tall.
Fishtail palms do not bloom until they are about ten years old. They rarely bloom indoors even when mature.