Phoenix sylvestris

phoenix palm


Phoenix sylvestris

(L.) Roxb. 1832

pronounced: FEE-nicks sill-VEST-riss

(Arecaceae — the palm family)


common names: phoenix palm

Phoenix is from the Greek word φοινιξ (phoinix), purple, purple-red, crimson, and sylvestris is Latin, of a wood or forest.

This palm is a native of southern Pakistan and most of India. It grows in plains and scrublands up to about 1300 m in altitude. Its fruit is used to make wine and jelly. The sap is tapped, and drunk fresh or fermented into toddy. The fresh sap is boiled to make palm jaggery in West Bengal.
There are several of these palms, both male and female, in the parkland at the southern end of Picnic Bay. They are not self-cleaning, and the dead leaves need to be cut off close to the trunk if the palm is to maintain a tidy shape.

Phoenix sylvestris ranges from 4 to 8 m in height and 40 cm in diameter. The leaves are about 3 m long, gently recurved, on 1 m petioles with acanthophylla near the base. The leaf crown grows to 10 m wide and 7.5 – 10 m tall, containing up to 100 leaves. The species is dioecious. The inflorescence on both male and female trees grows to 1 m with white, unisexual flowers forming to a large, pendant infructescence. The flowers are borne on a spadix covered by a spathe about 30 cm long; the spathe separates into 2 boat-shaped halves, exposing the flowers at maturity. Both male and female inflorescences are about 25 cm long, each bearing about 2,800 flowers. The single-seeded fruit ripens to a purple-red colour. They are oblong, roughly 1.5 cm in length and 1 cm in diameter. The seed occupies more than half of the fruit.

The fruit is cooling, oleaginous, constipative, and used medicinally for heart and abdominal complaints, fevers, vomiting, and loss of consciousness. The roots are used to stop toothache. The fruit, pounded and mixed with almonds, quince seeds, pistachio nuts and sugar, is a restorative remedy. The trunk is used by villagers in house construction, forming the supporting beam of the roof. Halved trunks are used for water-channels, and the leaves are used for making brooms, floor mats and fans.

The Phoenix palms are closely associated in mythology with the bird of the same name. This was the sacred firebird of the Phoenician, Egyptian and Greek mythologies. Although the mythologies vary in detail, the phoenix is a gloriously-coloured bird with a 500 to 1000 year life-cycle. Near the end of its life it builds itself a nest of myrrh twigs that then spontaneously ignites, burning itself and the bird and reducing them to ashes. From the ashes a new, young phoenix (or phoenix egg) arises, reborn to life again. The new phoenix is destined to live as long as its old self. In some stories, the new phoenix embalms the ashes of its old self in an egg made of myrrh and deposits it in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis.

Several Lepidoptera species use this as a food plant, including:

      • the Orange Palm Dart Cephrenes augiades; and
      • the Yellow Palm Dart Cephrenes trichopepla.


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2009-2016
Page last updated 11th March 2019