Phoenix pusilla Gaertn., Fruct. Sem. Pl. 1: 24 (1788)

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Map uses TDWG level 3 distributions (
Indiapresent (World Checklist of Arecaceae)B
Sri Lankapresent (World Checklist of Arecaceae)B
Sri Lanka and Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu and southern region of Kerala in India. (S.C. Barrow, A Monograph of Phoenix L. (Palmae: Coryphoideae). 1998)A


  • NOTES ON TAXONOMIC HISTORY OF Phoenix IN SRI LANKA. The first references to Phoenix in Sri Lanka are given by Hermann (1687, 1698). Hermann (1687, 1717) described two Phoenix species from Sri Lanka which were referred to as Indi Hinindi and Indi Mahaindi. From the brief descriptions it is clear that Hermann distinguished these palms on size. The vernacular names cited as Maha Indi and Hin Indi support this. In Sinhala, 'Indi' means 'date', 'maha' and 'hin' mean 'large' and 'small' respectively. Linnaeus (1747) included the two taxa in separate genera when he cited Indi Mahaindi in Phoenix and Hinindi in Vaga L. In Species Plantarum, Linnaeus (1753) included Mahaindi in Phoenix and Hinindi in the genus Elate L. Elate also included Katou-indel of Rheede (1678 - 1703), which is attributable to Phoenix sylvestris of India. By including Hinindi and Katou-indel together under Elate, it would appear that Linnaeus was confused on two points. Firstly, he took the name Hinindi to refer to the larger of the two Sri Lankan palms, and secondly that the larger palm was synonymous with P. sylvestris. This confusion was repeated in later treatments of Phoenix in India and Sri Lanka (Martius 1823 - 1853; Thwaites 1864), but Hamilton (1827) correctly referred Hinindi to P. farinifera. The first post-Linnean species of the genus in Sri Lanka was described as P. pusilla by Gaertner in 1788. Gaertner described the species from a short palm, said to have been of Sri Lankan origin, cultivated in Leiden Botanic Garden. The brief description and illustrations of fruit and seed are not sufficient for certain identification, and it is not clear whether the species refers to Mahaindi or Hinindi. However, the citation of the species as a native of Sri Lanka and East India suggests that P. pusilla refers to the smaller palm, Hinindi. In 1795, in Plants of the Coromandel Coast, Roxburgh described P. farinifera as a short palm of sandy, coastal regions along the Coromandel coast of south eastern India but made no mention of Sri Lanka. In Flora Indica, Roxburgh (1832) acknowledged its existence in Sri Lanka, and cited R pusilla Gaertn. as a synonym. No mention was made of Mahaindi. Griffith (1845) followed Roxburgh (1832) in his treatment of the genus in India. Thwaites (1864) recorded only one species of Phoenix in Sri Lanka, referring it to P. sylvestris and noting it to be a native of hotter parts of the island. The specimen C.P. 3172 is cited. It is clear that Thwaites (1864) referred to the tall-stemmed palm of south western Sri Lanka but, following Linnaeus, called it Hinindi rather than Mahaindi. The confusion between the tall-stemmed Sri Lankan Phoenix and P. sylvestris of India was appreciated by Trimen (1885) who described the Sri Lankan species as P. zeylanica Trimen. Trimen (1885, 1898), Blatter (1926) and Mahabalk & Parthasarathy (1963) all considered the smaller Sri Lankan Phoenix to be identical with P. farinifera of India, for which the name P. pusilla took precedence. Only von Martius (1823 - 1853) and Beccari (1890) considered Gaertner's P. pusilla to refer to P. zeylanica rather than P. farinifera. Von Martius (1823 - 1853) cited two species of Phoenix in Sri Lanka as P. pusilla and P. farinifera. Hinindi is cited under P. pusilla, and no mention is made of Mahaindi. Beccari (1890) adopted this opinion after seeing Gaertner's illustration of seeds of P. pusilla which show the intrusion of the testa in the region of the raphe to be Y-shaped in transverse section. This illustration matched Beccari's own observations of seeds of P. zeylanica, and I have also found there is a tendency for the seeds of P. pusilla to show this character. However, the pattern of intrusion of the testa is generally too variable both within and between species and cannot be considered taxonomically reliable, as Beccari (Beccari & Hooker 1892 - 93) himself later acknowledged. Beccari & Hooker (1892 - 93) reversed this decision in Flora of British India, which cited P. pusilla as a synonym of P. zeylanica. De Zoysa (in press) considered Gaertner's description of P. pusilla to be inadequate for certain identification and recommended that the later names, P. zeylanica (Trimen 1885) and P. farinifera (Roxburgh 1832), be adopted. Nomenclatural confusion surrounding species of Phoenix in Sri Lanka and southern India is, in part, a reflection of the poor delimitation of the taxa involved. Inadequate attention has been paid both to the relationship between Sri Lankan Phoenix palms and their Indian counterparts, and to the relationship between ecological and morphological variation. Greater consideration of these factors, in the context of variation within the genus as a whole, has clarified delimitation of Phoenix species and associated nomenclatural problems in Sri Lanka and southern India. For the reasons outlined below, I consider P. zeylanica and R farinfera to be conspecific. Both names are predated by P. pusilla Gaertn. which therefore takes nomenclatural precedence.
    NOTES ON SPECIES DELIMITATION. De Zoysa (in press) acknowledged the difficulty of clearly delimiting two Phoenix taxa in Sri Lanka, suggesting ecological factors as the cause, but chose to maintain them as distinct species. My observations of populations of Phoenix in southern India and Sri Lanka lead me to conclude that P. farinifera and P. zeylanica cannot be considered distinct. The key character of stem height is particularly unreliable because individuals of P. zeylanica can remain stemless for many years and P. farinifera can sometimes be found with a well- developed stem. Leaflet orientation is also unreliable as a distinguishing character. Clear distinction can be made between leaflets arranged in one or more than one plane, but distinction is less clear between those arranged in three or four planes. The number of planes of orientation appears to depend in part on leaf size and position. Proximal leaflets of P. zeylanica are strongly quadrifarious in arrangement, but less so distally. Leaflets of smaller individuals of P. farinifera are arranged in more than one plane of orientation, but less strongly four-ranked. De Zoysa (in press) describes the leaflet apices of P. farinifera and P. zeylanica to be 'softish' and 'very sharp' respectively. In my experience, leaflets of both taxa are sharply pointed, the apices marked by an almost needle-like extension. To summarise, I consider the characters previously used to distinguish P. farinifera and P. zeylanica are insufficient for reliable species delimitation and therefore consider the taxa to be conspecific under the name P. pusilla Gaertn. Polymorphism within P. pusilla is likely to be due to ecological factors. (S.C. Barrow, A Monograph of Phoenix L. (Palmae: Coryphoideae). 1998)A

Biology And Ecology

  • Roxburgh (1832) described P. farinifera (= P. pusilla) as a 'native of dry, barren ground, chiefly of the sandy lands at a small distance from the sea near Coringa (Coromandel coast of south eastern India)'. However, P. pusilla is not restricted to coastal areas in India but is also found inland at the margins of marshes and raised banks along borders of paddy fields, up to 700 m altitude. In Sri Lanka, P. pusilla is found in the dry lowlands of the north and east (where it was previously referred to as P. farinifera Roxb.), and wetter lowlands and hill country of the south west up to 500 m altitude (where it was previously referred to as P. zeylanica Trimen). (S.C. Barrow, A Monograph of Phoenix L. (Palmae: Coryphoideae). 1998)A

Common Name



  • Solitary or clustering palm. Stem to 6 m high and 30 cm in diam. Leaves to 3 m long; pseudopetiole to 70 cm long x 1.5 - 3 cm wide at base, rounded abaxially; leaf sheath fibrous, reddish-brown; leaf bases persistent, vertically orientated on trunk, c. 8 cm wide at base; acanthophylls individually arranged in one or more planes of orientation, c. 7 - 18 on each side of rachis, yellow-green, very sharp, to 11 cm long; leaflets more or less irregularly arranged, quadrifarious proximally, c. 30 - 100 on each side of rachis, elongate-spathulate in shape with very sharp, needle-like apices, 10 - 45 x 0.5 - 3 cm in length; leaflet join with rachis marked by yellow-orange pulvinus; lamina concolorous, dark, glossy green, and pliable in texture. Staminate inflorescences erect; prophyll coriaceous, 12 - 30 x 4 - 8 cm; peduncle 5 - 25 cm long; rachillae arranged at wide angle to the rachis, c. 50 - 70 in number, to 21 cm long. Staminate flowers ovoid, yellow-white; calyx 1 - 1.5 mm high; petals 4 - 5 x 2 - 3 mm ovate, with rounded apices. Pistillate inflorescences erect, arching at fruit maturity; prophyll coriaceous, splitting twice, 17 - 41 x 2.5 - 5.5 cm; peduncle to c. 25 - 75 cm; rachillae 20 - 120 in number, orange-green, 4 - 30 cm long. Pistillate flowers mostly in the distal half of rachilla; calyx to 1.2 mm high; petals 2 x 3 - 4 mm. Fruit ovoid, 11 - 15 x 5 - 8 mm, ripening from green to red to purple-black, moderately fleshy, sweet. Seed ovoid with rounded apices, pinkish-brown when fresh, drying glossy chestnut-brown, 8- 12 x 6 mm, with intrusion of testa in region of raphe (postament) often Y-shaped in transverse section; embryo lateral opposite raphe; endosperm homogeneous. (S.C. Barrow, A Monograph of Phoenix L. (Palmae: Coryphoideae). 1998)A

Materials Examined

  • INDIA: ANDHRA PRADESH. Cuddapah Distr., Feb. 1883 (ster.), Gamble 11105, 11106 (K!). KERALA. Trivandrum, Veli, sea-level, 25 Jan. 1995, Barrow & Bunoi 51 (pist.), 52 (stam.) (K!, TBGRI!). TAMIL NADU. Mariappa nagar, 10 Jan. 1978 (stam.), Mohan 11282 (RHT!). (Coimbatore Distr.), 1882 (stam.), Brandis s.n. (FI-B!). (Madras Distr.): Chingleput, near Sadras, 23 Feb. 1933 (pist.), ChevianJacob 80414 (K!). (Salem Distr.): (Mettur range), Peria Thanda, N Bagpur R.F., 19 Dec. 1976 (pist.), Matthew & Alphonse 5884 (RHT!). (Shevaroys South Range), Thekkampatti, 10 May 1978 (pist.), Mohan 13476 (RHT!). (Attur Range), Periakalrayans, 22 Sept. 1978 (pist.), Venugopal & Manoharan 17610 (RHT!). (South Arcot Distr.): Takarai R.F., 19 Jan. 1978 (pist.), Ramamarthy 52846 (CAL!); (Uludurpet Range), Pulloorkkadu, 3 Dec. 1979 (pist.), Matthew 25097 (RHT!); Vridachalam, 1 Feb. 1980 (pist.), Matthew 26255 (RHT!). (Tinnevelly Distr.), Nateriakal, c. 900 - 1200 m alt., 12 Feb. 1913 (ster.), Hooper & Ramaswami 38454 (CAL!). (Tanjore Distr.), Sobanapurum, 21 March 1978 (pist.), Matthew 12568 (RHT!); Srirangam Is, 31 Jan. 1995 (pist.), Matthew & Barrow 65A (pist.), 65B (stam.) (K!, RHT!). SRI LANKA. (Matale Distr.): Dambulla to Sigirya road, near Kibissa, 180 m alt., 8 Feb. 1995 (pist.), Barrow & Weerasooriya 69 (pist.), 70 (stam.), 71 (pist.) (K!, PDA!). (Galle Distr.): Kanneliya Forest Reserve, Hiniduma, 6 March 1992 (pist.), De Zoysa 11 (PDA!). (Jaffna Distr.): Point Pedro, Kaddaikadu, 16 March 1973 (stam.), Bernardi 14250 (PDA!). (Kurunegala Distr.): Wariyapola, 27 March 1970 (pist.), Amaratunga 2045 (PDA!). (Puttalam Distr.): Miriswatte, Negombo- Maradagahamula road, 1 Oct. 1992 (stam., pist.), De Zoysa 72 (PDA!). (Kalutara Distr.): Habungala, Bentota, 10 March 1972 (pist.), Amaratunga 2389 (PDA!). (Ratnapura Distr.): Sinharaja Forest, 8 March 1992 (stam.), De Zoysa 28 (PDA!). (Puttalam Distr.): Chilaw to Puttalam road, 3 Feb. 1995, Barrow & Weerasooriya 66 (pist.), 67 (stam.), 68 (stam.) (K!, PDA!). (S.C. Barrow, A Monograph of Phoenix L. (Palmae: Coryphoideae). 1998)A