How to tell the age of a nikau

Nikau palm tree

Out her kitchen window, Barb Davies watches a battle for life as her nikau palm trees brave the weather.

Words and photos: Barb Davies

The nïkau palms on our farm give our family great pleasure. We view the two trees from our kitchen window and marvel every day at the lives that the trees host. Our farm has a nïkau palm of indeterminate age at the woolshed which we think is over 100 years old. The two nïkau just outside our kitchen window were planted by the previous owner in 1980.

They are a housing estate for sparrows, a café for blackbirds, thrushes and tui, and sadly also a fast food outlet for stoats. I have always wanted to write a diary “Life in the nïkau from the kitchen window”. On New Year’s Day this year the tree shed yet another frond. It exposed a tightly-bound flower head and a once-protected sparrow’s nest was now open to view.

Within a few days the pink flowers were on display awaiting the arrival of the first customers. The plump berries grew and turned a darker red. What an attraction they for the ever-hungry feathered customers. We don’t own a cat so ‘our’ birds feed in relative security. The tree is approximately four metres from the kitchen window and the birds ignore our presence, only flying away when the bossy blackbirds demand a position.

As I write this, we are experiencing some rather tumultuous weather. The wind gusts have been severe and the sparrow’s nest has looked in danger of losing its hold, its occupants chorusing their disapproval. Their brave parents have carried on with the feeding regime. I have no doubt that if this wind continues the nest will be earth-bound fairly soon. Will Mum and Dad continue to care for their offspring? Will the babies stay at home or seek their fortunes elsewhere? It’s life in the nïkau.

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Nikau palm tree


The nïkau is very slow-growing. Research conducted in lowland forests near Auckland found it takes 40–50 years to begin to form a trunk and about 200 years to reach 10 metres tall. On average two fronds are shed per year leaving behind a leaf scar on the trunk which can be used to give a rough indication of age since the trunk began forming.


Rhopalostylis sapida

Height: up to 10m
Likes: light shade, plenty of moisture, shade and wind protection when young, love wet gullies, depressions and the bottom of steep slopes. The world’s most southerly (and NZs only) native palm, the nikau has become more popular in recent years for its exotic looks. It is very slow-growing, taking 15-20 years to form a trunk, but well worth waiting for. They are a brilliant food source for birds, but do require possum protection as their light pink flowers and bright red berries are irresistible to most animals.

Source: Nïkau palms,


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NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine.
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