Tree Profiles Foxtail Palm

The Foxtail Palm is endemic to a very small, very remote area of Australia.  It is a spectacularly lush and elegant palm which was only discovered comparatively recently. In the late 1970s, specimens were found growing on exposed gravel hilltops on Cape Melville on Cape York, the most north-eastern part of north Queensland. At first it was mistaken for Normanbya normanbyi.

The tropical rainforests of this area are some of the oldest rainforests still surviving. They cover an area of about 900,000 square hectares in a narrow band along the north-east coast of Queensland.

The demand for the new palm was so great that for some time there was a flourishing black market for the seed. One of the first places to grow the palm was the Townsville Palmetum and the story goes that when the fruit looked on the verge of ripening, members of the Palmetum would spray the fruit green to fool would-be thieves into believing the fruit was not ready for collection.

It has been given the botanical name of Wodyetia bifurcata in acknowledgement of an aboriginal bushman named Wodyeti.  It is now extremely popular for its rugged but neat appearance. The crown is an arching mass of light green fronds which look for all the world like beautiful, bushy foxes’ tails. It is a low maintenance plant with a smooth, self-cleaning trunk but it does need heat if it is to be a satisfying choice of palm.

The natural habitat of the foxtail palm is dominated by granite boulders with loose, granitic, sandy soils and the palms there are exposed to weather coming straight off the sea. The climate is tropical with a prolonged dry season. With such a background, it is little wonder that the foxtail palm is extremely hardy and easy to grow. It is deep-rooted and is not likely to come down in a high wind or storm. They tolerate a wide variety of soil types but like to be well-drained. They will even grow in rocky sands or alkaline limestone environments.  Under good conditions, it is estimated that they grow 0.6 to 0.9 metres a year. It can be grown in full sun from a very early age. As if all these desirable qualities weren’t enough, the plant also tolerates light frosts, is resistant to lethal yellowing and rarely succumbs to pests and diseases.

The grey trunk is somewhat thin. It is a pinnate palm in that the leaves are arranged each side of a common axis, giving a feather-like appearance. This arrangement of leaves plus the fluffy character (plumose) adds to the ‘foxtail’ effect. The leaves reach a length of 2 to 3 metres while the tree itself grows to 10 metres. The large fruit are about duck-egg size and orange.

It is a good idea to apply mulch around the plant. To prevent collar rot, keep mulches and manures away from the trunk. Apply an organic fertiliser in spring or summer or use a commercial fertiliser which includes micronutrients and slow release potassium. The foxtail can also be grown in a pot but take care not to overwater.

There are now tens of thousands of these palms all over the world. They have been listed as ‘rare’ but it is now unlikely that this beautiful palm will ever be lost to the world – or to palm-lovers.