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Woody shrubs, vines, or trees. Stems very short or almost nothing, or an unbranched trunk. Leaves clustered terminally, or scattered alternately, pinnate, palmate, or costapalmate; leaf-sheaths open, or forming crownshafts; petioles absent or short to elongate. Inflorescence often paniculate (spadix), subtended by usually large bracts. Flowers small, sessile or very short pedicelled, bisexual, monoecious or dioecious. Perianth  6, outer 3 (sepals) separate or connate, inner 3 (petals) valvate or imbricate. Stamens usually 6, anthers dehiscing vertically. Carpels 3. Ovary superior 1-3 celled, ovule solitary per locule. Fruit mostly a berry or drupe, often with reflexed scales, variously coloured. Seeds free or adherent to the endocarp.

Key to the Genus

Serial Key Reference
1a. Leaves flabelliform, fan-like or orbicular 2
1b. Leaves pinnate 4
2a. Flowers dioecious, fruit large, 12-20 cm across Borassus
2b. Flowers hermaphrodite, scattered, small, 0.7-1.8 cm across 3
3a. Ovary of triangular carpels; spadix sparingly branched or simple Licuala
3b. Ovary of 3 globose carpels; spadix loosely panicled Livistona
4a. Fruits yield edible oil 5
4b. Fruits do not yield edible oil 6
5a. Fruits small, up to 4 cm long Elaeis
5b. Fruits large, 20-30 cm long Cocos
6a. Fruit clothed with reflexed, closely appressed, imbricating scales; stems armed, climbing, rarely erect 7
6b. Fruit not clothed with scales; stems not armed, erect 8
7a. Spathes tubular, persistent Calamus
7b. Spathes open, usually cymbiform, dehiscent Daemonorops
8a. Leaves twice pinnatisect, the segments very obliquely dimidiate-flabelliform Caryota
8b. Leaves completely or partially once pinnatisect 9
9a. Spadix infrafoliar, flowering after the fall of the leaf in the axil of which it is formed; leaf segments towards apex of leaf more or less confluent as a plaited limb 10
9b. Spadix interfoliar, flowering while the leaf in the axil of which it is formed is still green; leaves completely pinnatisect 11
10a. Male flowers one on each side of a female flower along the branches of the spadix Pinanga
10b. Male flowers minute, solitary or 2-nate towards tips of spadix branches; female flowers larger, solitary Areca
11a. Flowers spirally disposed, a female flower between two males Dypsis
11b. Flowers not spirally disposed, female flowers solitary 12
12a. Male calyx cupular Didymosperma
12b. Male calyx not cupular 13
13a. Segments of leaves with induplicate sides Phoenix
13b. Segments of leaves with reduplicate sides 14
14a. Perianth glumaceous; fruit a large syncarp; seeds grooved on one side Nypa
14b. Perianth not glumaceous; fruit a small drupe; seeds plano-convex 15
15a. Stamens 6; leaflets irregularly toothed, base cuneate Wallichia
15b. Stamens 20-90; leaflets not irregularly toothed, base 1-2 auricled Arenga