Caryota urens

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C. urens, the Kitul palm, Sri Lanka.
© Robert Zwahlen

© Trade winds fruit

Local names:
Bengali (sopari), English (toddy palm,fishtail palm,Indian sago palm,wine palm,jaggery palm,kitul palm), Hindi (mari), Sanskrit (mada,dirgha), Sinhala (kitul), Tamil (kundal panai,koondalpanai,thippali,tippili,konda panna)

Caryota urens is an unarmed, hapaxanthic, solitary or clustered, medium-sized palm up to 20 m tall; bole straight, unbranched, obscured at first by persistent fibrous leaf bases and sheaths, conspicuously ringed with narrow leaf scars, internodes elongated. 

Leaves bipinnate (pinnate in juveniles), induplicate with a terminal leaflet; sheath triangular, disintegrating into strong black fibres, densely hairy; petiole channelled above; leaflets numerous, obliquely wedge shaped, upper margin irregularly toothed. 

Inflorescence axillary, solitary, pendulous, branched to 1 order or rarely unbranched, bisexual; prophyll tubular; peduncular bracts up to 8, large; distal portion of rachis bearing spirally arranged, protandrous triads of 2 male flowers and 1 female flower. Flowers with 3 sepals and 3 petals. Male flower with free petals; stamens 6, filaments short, sometimes connate at base. Female flower globose; petals connate up to half way; ovary superior, 3-locular with a single ovule per cell, stigma 3-lobed. 

The smooth epicarp of the drupaceous and globose fruit turns dark scarlet-red at maturity. Mesocarp is fleshy, filled with abundant, irritant, needlelike crystals. The endocarp is not differentiated. Each fruit has 2 large hemispherical seeds with ruminate endosperm.


The species naturally inhabits the understorey tree stratum in moist lowland and submontane forests of tropical Asia. In lowland rainforests in Sri Lanka, its distribution was found to be less than 2 trees/ha, indicating its rarity in the wild.

Ecologically it is found in monsoon climates and peri-humid regions. It prefers moist, shady, cool places. C. urens is a slow-growing, shade-tolerant or shade-demanding species.

Native range
India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka

Tree management

The daily yield per tree of sap for wine and sugar from C. urens is 20-27 litres; its trunk yields 100-150 kg of starch. Harvest for sago and other purposes is mainly from wild and semi-wild populations. When flowering begins, the inflorescence is stimulated to produce juice; the inflorescence is then bound into a ‘candle’ form and tapped for its sweet juice by repeatedly slicing off the end of the candle. A tapping period may last for 10-15 years. Usually harvests for timber occurs when the tapping period has ended.

At room temperature the seeds remain viable for 30-90 days, depending on storage conditions. An experiment in Sri Lanka on the effect of seed storage and exposure to sunlight revealed a germination rate of 99% for seeds sown after 30-day storage in a dark room.

The species naturally inhabits the understorey tree stratum in moist lowland and submontane forests of tropical Asia. In lowland rainforests in Sri Lanka, its distribution was found to be less than 2 trees/ha, indicating its rarity in the wild.

Ecologically it is found in monsoon climates and peri-humid regions. It prefers moist, shady, cool places. C. urens is a slow-growing, shade-tolerant or shade-demanding species.

C. urens can be propagated by seed with direct sowing being a viable method. Exposure of seeds to direct sunlight for 6 hours prior tosowing inhibits germination. Therefore satisfactory germination could be obtained by placing seeds in a moist, dark environment. Seeds germinate in 18-30 days.

  A primary product of C. urens in rural communities is the sugar substitute called kitul honey or jaggary; juice from the flowers is concentrated in large, wide-mouthed vessels on an open fire to prepare a viscous, golden syrup with a delicious flavour. It is often served with a thick, fermented curd, prepared from buffalo milk. Alternatively the sap is further concentrated to give kitul jaggary (candy). The fruits contain raphides and are normally not eaten, although the seeds may be chewed. The apical region of the stem of young C. urens is used as a food source. The palm heart consisting of the apical meristem together with its immediate derivatives before thickening is eaten as a vegetable by rural people.

In Sri Lanka, leaves of C. urens are traditionally used as a ‘delicacy fodder’ for domesticated elephants; in areas where the trees are not tapped, they are cut down to feed elephants. The leaves are used for fodder; they contain 2% crude protein and 9.3% crude fibre.

Apiculture:  This palm is cultivated for its nectar for honey production.

Fibre:  The sheathing leaf bases provide a strong fibre for brushes. In Sri Lanka it is used as a source of fibre resembling horsehair, kitul fibre or kitul toddy.

Timber:  The mature wood is strong, heavy and durable. Caryota stem yields an inferior timber sometimes used for construction purposes such as planking, rafters, roofing, partitioning and fencing. In Papua New Guinea, it is commonly used for flooring and making spears. The stem, cut lengthways in 2 with its centre scooped out, is used for gutters and drains, or to convey water over long distances. Polished stems are used as monoliths in modern houses. 

Medicine:  A porridge prepared from C. urens flour is prescribed by local physicians to treat gastric ulcers, migraine headaches, snake-bite poisoning and rheumatic swellings. The root is used for tooth ailments, the bark and seed to treat boils, and the tender flowers for promoting hair growth. 

Ornamental:  As the only palm having bipinnate leaves with fishtail-like leaflets, both young and semi-adult plants are increasingly used as indoor as well as outdoor plants in households, large hotels and airport terminal buildings. The leaves are also used to enhance floral decorations. Unlike ornamental palms such as royal palm (Roystonea) and cabbage palm (Oreodoxa oleracea), however, C. urens is not a good candidate for avenue planting because of its relatively short stature and short life span.

Alcohol:  Sap collected from the inflorescence is fermented with a crude, mixed inoculum of yeast to obtain toddy. The alcoholic beverage prepared from C. urens can be distilled, as is coconut toddy, to prepare a more concentrated spirit.