Arecales (Palms)


Arecales is the order of monocotyledonous angiosperms that includes the single family, Arecaceae, the palms. The family is divisible into five subfamilies, each with very distinctive morphology. Palms are economically very important, providing a huge range of products from food, clothing, construction and basketry material to medicine. They are usually instantly recognisable as palms, having distinctive morphology; in particular, the fan (palmate) or feather (pinnate) leaves are almost unique in development. The fossil record of palms extends from the middle of the late Cretaceous to the present day. Palms are largely confined to the tropics and subtropics, with a very few outliers in temperate regions. Across the tropics the distribution of subfamilies, tribes, subtribes and genera is uneven, reflecting a complex history of evolution and dispersal.

Key Concepts:

  • The palms are an iconic group of plants that epitomise the tropical world (Figure 1).

  • Palms boast the largest leaf, the longest unbranched stem and the largest and heaviest seed.

  • Palms are of immense economic significance.

Keywords: palms; uses

Figure 1.

The coconut, Cocos nucifera, epitomising the tropics, Madagascar (© John Dransfield).

Figure 10.

Palm fruits, Pritchardia viscosa, Hawai'i (© John Dransfield).

Figure 11.

Rattan fruits with scaly skins, Plectocomiopsis mira, Malaysia (© John Dransfield).

Figure 2.

The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, in Oman (© John Dransfield).

Figure 3.

Climbing palms or rattans, Calamus zeylanicus and Calamus ovoideus, Sri Lanka (© John Dransfield).

Figure 4.

A doum palm, Hyphaene compressa, showing trunks branching by equal forking (dichotomy), Kenya (© John Dransfield).

Figure 5.

Palmate or fan leaf, Pritchardia viscosa, Hawai'i (© John Dransfield).

Figure 6.

Pinnate leaf, Roystonea borinquena, Dominican Republic (© John Dransfield).

Figure 7.

Pinnate leaf, Cocos nucifera, Queensland (© John Dransfield).

Figure 8.

Doubly pinnate or bipinnate leaf, Caryota obtusa, cultivated in Florida, USA (© John Dransfield).

Figure 9.

Tahina spectabilis, flowering itself to death, Madagascar (© John Dransfield).



Dengler NG, Dengler RE and Kaplan DR (1982) The mechanism of plication inception in palm leaves: histogenetic observations on the pinnate leaf of Chrysalidocarpus lutescens. Canadian Journal of Botany 60: 82–95.

Dransfield J, Uhl NW, Asmussen CB et al. (2008) Genera Palmarum: The Evolution and Classification of Palms. Kew: Kew Publishing.

Hallé F (1977) The longest leaf in palms? Principes 21: 18.

Pritchard HW, Wood CB, Hodges S and Vautier HJ (2004) 100‐seed test for desiccation tolerance and germination: a case study on eight tropical palm species. Seed Science and Technology 32: 393–403.

Trénel P, Gustafsson MHG, Baker WJ et al. (2007) Mid‐tertiary dispersal, not Gondwanan vicariance explains distribution patterns in the wax palm subfamily (Ceroxyloideae: Arecaceae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 45: 272–288.

Further Reading

Dransfield J and Beentje HJ (1995) The Palms of Madagascar. London: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, HMSO.

Dransfield J and Uhl NW (1998) Palmae. In: Kubitzki K (ed.) The Families and Genera of Vascular Plants. IV. Flowering Plants. Monocotyledons. Alismatanae and Commelinanae (Except Graminae), pp. 306–389. Berlin: Springer‐Verlag.

Henderson A (2002) Evolution and Ecology of Palms. Bronx, NY: The New York Botanical Garden Press.

PalmWeb – An Interactive Palm Taxonomic Website, Complete with On‐Line Glossary of Palm Terms. http://www.palmweb. org

Tomlinson PB (1990) The Structural Biology of Palms. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Dransfield, John(Jul 2011) Arecales (Palms). In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003707.pub2]