There are two major uses of the term areca palm. In some cases it may be used to describe any number of palm trees in the genus Areca, within the family of Arecaceae. In other cases it may refer to the Areca palm of Dypsis lutescens, also known as Butterfly Palm or Golden Cane Palm, also in the Arecaceae family.
The broader genus of areca palms includes more than fifty distinct species of what could be considered areca palm. The most famous of these is the areca nut palm, Areca catechu. The nuts, or more accurately drupes, of the areca palm are widely used throughout the tropics. The nuts of the areca palm are wrapped in the leaves of the betel vine, and chewed as a stimulant.
Often the nut of the areca palm is referred to as betel nut, but technically this is incorrect. The confusion stems from the use of the betel leaf. Chewing the nut of the areca palm increases alertness in most people, and stimulates awareness, as well as causing a perceived heating of the body. The nut of the areca palm has three active alkaloids: Guracine, Arecoline, and Arecain.
People throughout the Pacific Rim and the various island nations dotting the Pacific chew the nut of the areca palm regularly, in a practice that dates back thousands of years. Some evidence suggests the nut of the areca palm and the leaf of the betel vine have been chewed in tandem since the 2nd millennium BCE. In the modern world, tobacco is often added to the betel mixture for added stimulation.
In Ayurvedic medicine, the nut of the areca palm is used as a remedy against bad breath. Some people also tout it as being useful for those suffering from schizophrenia, although no good studies exist that validate this view.
In addition to the various Areca palms which can be called an areca palm, there is also the Dypsis lutescens, sometimes identified as Chrysalidocarpus lutescens. This areca palm comes from Madagascar, and has become very popular as a decorative plants in the home and in landscaping.
The areca palm is often touted as a shrub type plant, but many experts point out that because of their desire to grow out they should be planted with quite a bit of distance between them. Although often stunted by conditions, they are in fact trees, and should be treated as such. Since the areca palm is a tropical plant, it needs a great deal of humidity, and although often used indoors, such conditions rarely give it the ambient moisture needed. At the same time, they are injured by cold temperatures, so should only be planted outdoors in conditions approximately tropical climates.
If grown indoors, an areca palm should be kept in a bright indirect light. The tips of the fronds will often brown over time, but this is normal and to be expected. The brown tips should not be clipped off, as this will inhibit growth in those fronds. All told, the areca palm can make a beautiful indoor or outdoor plant, but because of their finicky nature, they require more care than many common household plants.