Native to Sri Lanka, the Western Ghats of southern India and small highland areas of East Africa, the Fern Tree or Thika Palm is best known for its striking foliage but large specimens also produce a heavy wood.
It is a slow-growing tree with a straight, short trunk and a dense, neatly shaped rounded crown. The bark is smooth and lightly brown on young trees, on older trees becoming rough, fissured and flaking. In its native habitat, it reaches heights of up to 27 m (88 ft), though is more typically 5 to 20 m (16 to 65 ft) tall.
The leaves are large, fern-like and showy, up to 40 cm (1.3 ft) long and made up of glossy green elongated oval leaflets arranged in pairs along the length. They are evergreen, remaining on the tree throughout the year.
The flowers are small, white with a pink tint and are held in loose clusters that are hardly visible, being hidden by the dense foliage. They bloom from late winter to spring, coinciding with the transition from the dry to the rainy season in its native range and are followed by small, green oval fruit that become purple-red when ripe.
It is commonly cultivated in gardens and landscapes for its lush green eye-catching foliage, compact size, uniform shape and the shade it gives. It is a good candidate for a large privacy screen or windbreak, on account of its low-branching habit and dense growth.
It produces a hard and heavy wood, averaging out at over 900 kgs per cubic meter (56 lbs per cubic ft), with medium to high natural resistance to decay and termites. The heartwood is an attractive reddish brown and well-formed logs are sawn into durable beams and posts used in heavy construction. The small-diameter roundwood and branchwood is fashioned into tool handles and makes an excellent slow burning firewood.
Grows naturally in sub-humid to humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally in areas with annual lows of 13 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 34 °C, annual rainfall of 800 to 2500 mm and a dry season of 7 months or less. However, it reaches its best development as a tree in tropical lowland areas with annual rainfall of 1500 mm and more.
New plants are usually started from seed which lose their viability quickly and should be sown within a few days of harvesting the fruit. It performs best on free- to slow-draining clay and loam soils of a moderately acid to alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.0 to 8.0 and on sites with full to partial sun exposure.
Birds are known to eat the fruit and disperse the seed outside of cultivation. It is listed as a weed in at least one reference publication and it is reported to have naturalised on some Hawaiian islands. In Florida trees rarely produce viable fruit, hence it is not recorded as invasive there.
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