Areca palm trees (Dypsis lutescens, previously known as Chrysalidocarpus lutescens, USDA zones 10-11), also known as butterfly palms, grow to a mature height of about 20-30 feet while kentia palm trees (Howea forsteriana, zones 9b-11) commonly grow to 30-40 feet tall. Of course, most indoor palm trees are nowhere near their mature landscape height, so this information cannot be used to determine whether a palm tree is an areca or a kentia.
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When identifying which tree you're growing, it may seem difficult, since many young palms have a similar appearance at a first glance. Upon examination, however, they are very different looking palm trees with different growth patterns. Once you know the differences, it will be quite easy to determine which species you have.
Step 1: Measure the Leaflets
Measure the width and length of the leaflets — not the leaves. Individual leaves, also known as fronds, on both types of palms are thought to be branches by most houseplant owners. They are actually very long compound leaves with many narrow leaflets.
The length of the leaf will vary depending on its age and that of the palm, but the leaflets grow to a certain length and stop. Measure the longest leaflets located at the base of the leaf. Areca leaflets are 1 1/2 to 2 feet long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Kentia palm leaflets are 2 1/2 feet long and 2 inches wide.
Step 2: Look at Its Appearance
Look at the general appearance of the plant. The areca palm tree has a very fine-textured look, with leaves held upright so they "float" above the plant. The narrow leaflets are arranged along the leaf stems in a distinct V-shape.
The kentia palm tree has a more coarse appearance. The feathery leaves flow downward in a weeping fashion. From the central stem of the frond, the 2-inch-wide leaflets also drape downward. This gives the entire plant a cascading look, with the leaves arching from the top of the stem and then flowing toward the floor.
Step 3: Check the Leaf Color
Check the color of the leaves — top and bottom. The leaves of kentia palm trees have dark green tops with light green underneath. Areca palm tree leaves are a rich medium green on both sides.
Step 4: Determine the Number of Stems
Look at the stems, trunk or trunks at the base of the palm tree. The kentia palm is a single-trunk tree and the areca palm tree grows in clusters, with many smaller stems. Since greenhouses commonly plant multiple palm trees in a single container, the number of trunks or stems on the palm tree may not be easily discernible.
Step 5: Examine the Stem Color
Examine the stems to determine their colors. Kentia palms and areca palms have very different stem or trunk colors. Areca palm trees, also commonly called the golden cane palm, have yellowish-green leaf stems. Young indoor kentia palm trees have dark green trunks that turn brown as the tree matures.
Step 6: Measure the Growth
Check the annual growth of the palm. Areca palms are fast-growing trees that may gain 6 to 10 inches every year. The tree may outgrow an indoor space within a few years. The Kentia palm, on the other hand, is a slow-growing tree that lives happily in a planter, even in low-light conditions. It can thrive as an indoor plant for many years.