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 pale 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 and are followed by small green oval fruit that become purple-red when ripe.
It is commonly cultivated in tropical and subtropical 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.
Trees on favourable sites produce a hard and heavy wood, averaging more than 900 kgs per cubic meter (56 lbs per cubic ft), with moderate 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, trees achieve their best development in tropical lowland areas with annual rainfall of 1500 mm or 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. 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. For some reason, trees in Florida rarely produce viable fruit, hence it is not recorded as invasive there.
Barwick, M., et al. 2004, Tropical & subtropical trees : a worldwide encyclopaedic guide, Thames and Hudson, London
Dharani, N. 2011, Field guide to common trees & shrubs of East Africa, 2nd ed., Struik Nature Publishing, Cape Town
Krishen, P. 2006, Trees of Delhi : a field guide, Dorling Kindersley Publishers, Delhi
Macmillan, H. F. 1943, Tropical planting and gardening : with special reference to Ceylon, 5th ed, Macmillan Publishing, London
Prasanna, P.V. 2012, Trees of Hyderabad: A Pictorial Guide, 1st ed., Botanical Survey of India (BSI), Indian Government Ministry of Environment and Forests, Kolkata
Randall, R. P. 2007, The introduced flora of Australia and its weed status, Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management, Glen Osmond, South Australia
Rauch, F. D. & Weissich, P. R. 2000, Plants for tropical landscapes : a gardener's guide, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu
Troup, R.S. & Joshi, H. B. 1975 to 1981, Troup's Silviculture of Indian Trees (3 volumes), Government of India Publications, New Delhi
National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) 2012, Pacific Islands Area Vegetative Guide, Technical Note 7., United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Washington D.C.
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