Cocos Palm

Syagrus romanzoffiana

Family: Aracacaea
Origin: Native to South America.

Planted extensively throughout the mid-19th century and still popular in landscaping today, the Cocos Palm can be found all over Australia’s east coast, in Darwin, Western Australia, South Australia and in Tasmanian parks and garden.

A long-lived palm, it can grow from 1-2 metres annually and will tolerate salt, drought, frosts and shallow soil.

Cocos Palms have long leaf-plumes of a distinct, feathery appearance. They provide an instant tropical-feel to gardens, although their early dying fronds can become unsightly if not pruned.

unsightly fronds hanging from a cocos palm in Brisbane

They have a flat, fibrous root system, which has made them popular as poolside trees. There, they can provide shade without causing subterranean damage to the pool walls and help to give a resort-style atmosphere to a suburban backyard.
Their reliably straight trunks and easy growth has also seen them planted by councils, in rows, along avenues and bayside walkways. When cultivated in this manner, they give a visual impression of grandeur and neat uniformity.

Arboriculture

Growth form

Their tall, slender trunks can take them up to 20 metres high, however their average is around 12 metres. Cocos Palms are topped with long, plumes of pinnate leaves that attach to the tree via the wide base of their stalks.

Trunk

Solitary grey trunk covered in boat-shaped, woody leaf scars. It can grow to approximately 30 centimetres in diameter.

Flowering

Cocos Palms produce branched flower panicles of up to 2 metres long. Their inflorescences open leaving long dry bracts on the palm. Their flowers are small, yellowish-white in appearance and cluster by the hundreds.

Within the monoecious sprays of flower both male and female variations occur. Pollination happens with the assistance of fruit bats who, attracted to the rich nectar of the flowers, carry and distribute pollen in their fur.

Unfortunately for the flying foxes, who also distribute the palms’ seed, they can become trapped in the palm and have their thin wings damaged by the flowers’ tough spikes. Even more of an issue however is the hard nut of the cocos palm grinds down flying foxes’ teeth over time so that they cannot eat and starve to death. This is considered to be the main reason why flying foxes live over twice as long in captivity compared to the wild.

Foliage

Enormous 5 metre, pinnate leaves with up to 500 very long leaflets attached to each thick stalk. Its leaves are green with a grey underside and although they have pointed tips, the leaves are not spiked or as sharp as other palm varieties.

Fruits

The Cocos palm is distinctive for the clusters of golden, yellow fruit that dangle between its fronds. Birds and various mammals, including some foxes, consume the trees’ sweet offerings, which turn from orange from yellow when ripened.
The sticky centre of the fruit is accessed by breaking through a tough, nut-like outer shell.

Management

Propagation

A proliferation of fruit means the Cocos Palm sets an enormous amount of seed annually. If not removed before ripening, seedlings will appear around the base of the palm and at great distances, where birds and bats have carried seeds in their droppings.

Unwanted seedlings have been known to germinate from commercially available mulch and while Cocos Palm stumps will not reshoot, they should be completely dug out, rather than snipped or decrowned.

Cultivation

Like most palms, these require full sunlight and free draining soil. They are gross feeders and benefit from access to rich, organic matter. Heavy mulching with compost is recommended during the tree’s early years of growth. They should also be fed nitrogen rich plant food with supplements of iron.

Cocos Palms do not respond well to alkaline or limely soils which leave the tree suffering from a condition known as ‘frizz top’. This is where new fronds arrive already yellowed or browned and with a slightly burnt appearance. It can be remedied with the application of manganese sulphate three times a year.
Highly acidic, these palms are notoriously difficult to prune or cut through. Their acid in combination with a stringy, fibrous texture has been known to damage chainsaw blades, clogging up and eating away at the metal.

Other management issues with this palm include its overall weight including the heaviness of fruit clusters and individual fronds. When pruning, gardeners also have to be aware of the spider families that are almost always a part of the tree, the ant colonies they can attract and trapped fruit bats.

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Comments

  1. Peter says

    Hi David,

    I lived on a raised property supported by a retaining wall. The next door neighbor who’s property is a approximately 600 mm lower, has a series of cocos palms along this retaining brick wall. These cocos palms are approximately 600 mm from the edge of the trunk to the wall.

    My question is we are seeing cracks appear, I believe the ball of the cocos is expanding & lifting the wall. The neighbor has been advised that cocos will not have any effect on the wall.

    Can you advise what potential damage they will cause? Thank you.

  2. Pam says

    Hi David,

    Hi David,

    We have had two cocos palms growing in our yard for 25 years. I admit I’m attached to them despite them needing pruning regularly to avoid the problems that come with the falling fruit etc. They were young trees when we first came here (Sydney, near Botany Bay)

    My husband is scared one of them (which has grown at a very slight slant, and has a circular root thingy at the bottom rather exposed) will fall over on our house or our neighbour’s, bankrupting us in the process. He wants to have it removed. but as I said, I’m terribly attached to those trees and the thought of having just one solitary palm makes me miserable, though of course if there is a risk I wouldn’t fight the removal.

    To cut a long story short, what are the odds of palm trees like this actually falling over?

    Thanks,
    Pam

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Pam,

      I’ve only encountered two cocos that have uprooted in many years of assessing fallen trees, one of those being after a memorable storm. That’s not to say they can’t fail; however, palms rarely uproot.

      I’d still recommend having it assessed to be safe. Of course, since they are environmental weeds I always recommend their removal anyway.

      Thanks for asking,

      David.

  3. David says

    Hi David – I’ve planted 5 palms I have since found out are Cocos Palms. As they are only 2-3m tall, they are still OK to remove if I need to. What’s the best, least messy palm to plant alongside a pool area? I also have a tree that may need removing unless I can find out how to save it. Please contact me to discuss further as I am keen to add native species to attract birdlife. Cheers Dave

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Dave,

      I’d recommend small palms such as Raphis or a thin palm such as a Chamaedorea species. If you have a strong pool structure then perhaps a Carpentaria would work. They are native to Australia, have a less robust root system and self-cleaning as well.

      I’m being conservative in my recommendations as many palms can cause damage to pool structures, especially Dypsis lutescens, golden cane.

      In answer to your search for a tree to attract native birds, they just adore Grevilleas. Grevillea robusta is native to Brisbane but is too large for most suburban yards. Xanthostemon chrysanthus, golden penda, is also a favourite of our local birds, and there’s a Callistemon cultivar for every size space.

      Regards,

      David.

  4. barbara says

    Hello David,
    I wonder if you have any uses for cocos palms – does the trunk make reasonable mulch or compost? I have 3 large palms cut into pieces and apart from garden borders I don’t know what else to do with them. I know they take a while to break down and I have concerns about the ants they attract. Any suggestions?
    Thank you,
    Barbara

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Barbara. We can chip palms, and the woodchip breaks down into good mulch for gardens. Unfortunately it’s less popular than hardwood woodchip as it’s not considered as pleasing, aesthetically. On the bright side, we deliver it free for that reason.

      Your position is a bit different in that it’s in pieces rather than mulch. It will only break down after it has dried out. I’d suggest sun drying under a piece of perspex: something of a solar kiln. If that’s too much trouble I can only suggest bringing in a wood chipper.

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