Palm, pm, one of a large group of plants that are second only to cereals and other grasses in importance to man. Most palms are trees, but others are low shrubs or vines. Palms are widely distributed in the tropics, subtropics, and warm regions of the temperate zones. There are about 3,000 recognized species, of which 14 are native to the continental United States. People in many parts of the world use palms as a staple food, and in various ways for shelter, fuel, and clothing. Commercially, the coconut palm, oil palm, and date palm are of major value.

Description of Palms

The trunks of palm trees are either cylindrical or tapered from base to tip. Few species have branching trunks. Some kinds of palm trees grow 200 feet (60 m) high. Large fan-shaped (palmate) or feathershaped (pinnate) leaves spread out from the tip. The base of the leafstalk usually forms a sheath encircling the trunk. As the leaf blades grow old and fall off, the sheaths may mark the trunk with rough rings.

PalmPalm leaves are large and shaped like fans or feathers.

Shrublike palms often have such short stems that the leaves seem to rise directly from the soil. The stems of some kinds of viny palms creep along the ground; some climb on upright plants. The climbing stems of the rattan palms may reach a length of more than 600 feet (180 m).

The flowers and fruit of a palm are borne in or near the crown of leaves. Small greenish or yellow flowers are clustered on a spike or on a branching axis (stalk). Typically there are many flowers. One species, the talipot, produces a cluster as much as 20 feet (6 m) tall and 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 m) across, with several hundred thousand flowers. Pollination is by insects or, in a few species, such as the coconut palm, by wind. Some palms die after flowering.

There is wide variation in the size, shape, and texture of palm fruits. Some palms have fruit the size of a small pea. The fruit of the Seychelles palm, or double coconut, weighs up to 50 pounds (23 kg) and has the largest of all plant seeds. In the date and many other palm fruits, soft flesh surrounds a hard seed. In the coconut, dry, fibrous tissue surrounds the firm, juicy meat of the seed.

Uses of Palms

Coconuts, dates, and other palm fruits are eaten. Young palm plants often serve as vegetables; so do the terminal buds (hearts of palm) of such varieties as the cabbage palms. Edible oils, sugars, and starches are obtained from palms.

For centuries, palm leaves have been used as fans and umbrellas, and palm stems have been used in making walls, fences, bridges, cages, and furniture. Both stems and leaves are used as thatching. Fibers from palm leaves and stems are made into brushes, brooms, ropes, twine, hats, baskets, and filling materials. Other palm products include waxes, resins, and industrial oils.

Palms have long been popular for ornamental purposes. Several varieties of the royal palm are cultivated. Among the many palms that are grown in greenhouses and as houseplants are several kinds of kentia palms.

Palms make up the family Palmae. The talipot is Corypha umbraculifera; the Seychelles palm is Lodoicea maldivica; a West Indian cabbage palm is Oreodoxa oleracea; the royal palm is Roystonea regia; a common kentia palm is Howen belmoreana.