Caryota ophiopellis

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Figure 1. C. ophiopellis petiole close-up.


Common Names:

Snake-skin Palm

Distribution & Habitat:

Lowland rainforest of Vanuatu's southern Islands; Tanna, and Aneityum. Tanna is well populated, and here the palm is quite rare, although occasionally seen by the roadside, and in creek beds. It is a very long day walk to a small population of 3 palms, and at least a 2-day walk (i.e. 2 days there, 2 days back) to any larger populations. The natives grow the palm here, because of its attractiveness. Aneityum is far less populated, and consequently is a much wilder and more remote island, and here the palms are found in much greater numbers.

It is found from sea level up to about 400m, but mainly at sea level, and often very close to the ocean, where it is subject to salt-spray and high winds. The soils tend to be rather poor, old volcanic soils. The climate is cool tropical, with 500 - 600 mm of rain per year, mostly falling in summer, the winters being rather dry. It is found in close proximity to 2 other species of palm, Veitchia spiralis (by far the most common/dominant palm), and Carpoxylon macrospermum .


It is a 7-8 metre high, single stemmed understorey palm (it has never been observed breaking the canopy), with a very neat leaflet arrangement (in contrast to most other Caryota). In many respects it is a missing link between Arenga and Caryota, because the inflorescence is branching as in Arenga , while the fruit is closer in structure to Arenga than to Caryota as well. It is a very isolated Caryota , with its nearest relative being found on the Solomon Islands. This distinct gap between closely relatived plants is rather typical of South Pacific island palms, because so many have developed in considerable isolation.

Figure 2. C. ophiopellis leaves


The banding on the petioles is almost identical to a local snake, the only South Pacific python, known locally as In-reg-jay. This is a very common, slow moving, non-aggressive snake, with the Vanuatu version being much more stripped than is normal . See also Caryota zebrina, another "stripped" Caryota.


This palm, being an understorey plant from the cool tropics, would like a warm sheltered position, in a moist, well drained soil. It has been grown in full sun positions, however it tends to become rather weather beaten, and not as attractive as plants grown in more sheltered positions.

Figure 3. C. ophiopellis petiole close-up.
Figure 4. C. ophiopellis petiole close-up.

Contributed by:

John Dowe (the original discoverer of the palm) (Text)
Mike Gray (Figure 1)
Justen Dobbs (Figure 2)
Mike Brett, MB Palms, (Figure 3&4)

External Links:

Kew, PalmWeb, JSTOR, Trebrown

Google, Google Images, Flickr, PACSOA Forums, PalmTalk