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The phoenix palm is a stocky palm, with a trunk up to 18m tall and 1.2m in diameter. The trunk is covered with leaf scars, giving it a diamond-shaped pattern. The large leaves form a spreading crown at the top of the trunk and there are sharp, shiny spines (5-8cm long) on the leaf stalks. During October and November, branched clusters of creamy-yellow to white flowers occur on a long stem amongst the leaves. The cylinder-shaped berries are 1-5cm long, fleshy, date-like, and orange-yellow to dark purple in summer.
The preferred habitats of phoenix palm include coastal cliffs, forest, sand dunes, saline wetlands (mangroves and saltmarshes), urban areas and roadsides. It is capable of invading native bush. Wild populations are found in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, and Bay of Plenty.
Phoenix palm tolerates cold and warmth, drought and floods, shade and sun, and salt spray as well as mountain climate. It can be found growing on a wide variety of usually fertile soils. It has an extensive root system, which allows it to explore the surrounding earth to find subterranean water even at long distances. It is also resistant to temporary waterlogging. Seedlings are frost-sensitive but mature trees can withstand light frosts. The phoenix palm can exclude other plant species due to its large size and the spines which are unpalatable to grazing animals. It is native to the Canary Islands and is naturalised and/or invasive in peninsular Spain, Italy, Australia, Bermuda and parts of the United States (Florida, Arizona, Southern Nevada, California and Alabama).
The phoenix palm is dioecious, which means that there are separate male plants and female plants. Both plants produces flowers but it is only the rfemale plants that produce fruits and seeds. They begin to fruit at 5-10 years old, are very long-lived and produce abundant seed.