Fishtail palms are very attractive, somewhat busy palm trees with fronds that (not surprisingly) resemble the tails of dead fish. This is a suckering and clumping palm, meaning that a single healthy trunk will soon grow into a small clump. You'll frequently see fishtail palms sold as interiorscape plants, often for large areas like foyers and atriums, where they are planted in large pots.
Fishtails are beautiful palm trees, but they are not especially easy to grow indoors over the long-term. They need bright, strong light, or they will slowly die, and they benefit from warmer and wetter air than many houses can provide. Nevertheless, these are somewhat slow growers all around so even a fishtail in decline can last for a long time. A healthy plant would undoubtedly outgrow its space anyway—the most common species of fishtail palm wants to grow into a clump of small trees about 20 feet high, which is too high for all but the largest interior spaces.
These palms can be finicky. Here are their ideal growing conditions:
- Light: Fishtail palms require a great deal of very bright light. Provide the best light possible for the strongest growth and longest lifespan.
- Water: Provide a steady supply of light moisture. The soil can become slightly dry between waterings, but it will appreciate a gentle and steady supply of water.
- Soil: Any standard peat-based or coir-based potting with added drainage material will do a good job. If you expect your palm to live for a long time, add extra drainage material (pine bark, perlite) to encourage longer-lasting soil.
- Fertilizer: Feed with a weak liquid fertilizer throughout the growing season. Adding a pinch of Epsom salts monthly will help prevent a magnesium deficiency.
Fishtail palms can be propagated from seed. Flowers on this palm tree contain both male and female parts so that a single plant can yield viable seed. To sprout seed, keep it warm and moist in a small pot for six to eight months. More commonly, plants can be propagated using suckers from the base of the mother plant. Remove them carefully with a bit of root and expect them to recover for several months before new growth emerges.
Re-pot in the spring while they are young. In general, fishtail palms are slow-growing and will only need repotting every other year or so. It may not be possible to re-pot larger palms. In this case, scrape away the top several inches of potting soil and work new soil into the pot. Add plenty of porous drainage material to encourage good drainage.
There are about a dozen varieties of fishtail palms, most of them native to tropical and subtropical India and Asia. The most common one in the trade is the Caryota mitis, which is likely the only one you'll find.
Fishtail palms above all require adequate light indoors. Once you've taken care of that, it's a matter of keeping a steady supply of moisture and paying attention to their fertilizer needs. Fishtails occasionally develop deficiencies in magnesium, manganese, and iron. Symptoms are typically discolored or spotted leaves. The best solution is to fertilize regularly with a good fertilizer and provide occasional pinches of magnesium and chelated iron. If your plant starts to decline, however, the culprit is most likely low light levels, not inadequate nutrition. They are not particularly susceptible to disease issues, although fungal spotting does sometimes occur. Treat with copper fungicide first, before resorting to a more toxic treatment. Fishtail palms are vulnerable to pests including aphids, mealy bugs, scale, and whitefly. If possible, identify the infestation as early as possible and treat with the leave toxic option.