You’ll be seeing it everywhere again this summer: people’s backyards, sidewalk cafés, and, especially, box stores. It’s a potted palm with a fairly thick base and upright, arching, pinnate fronds made up of lots of narrow leaflets, probably about 3 to 6 feet (1 to 1.8 m) or so in height when you buy it: the majesty palm or majestic palm (Ravenea rivularis).
Outdoor Care in the North
Your potted majesty palm will not be hard to maintain over the summer. Stick it pretty much anywhere and water it well, never letting it dry out. You can even leave its pot soaking in a tray of water and it will be fine (in the wild, this palm grows right along river edges, with some of its roots dipping in water). Yes, it does prefer moderate to full sun, but many people are not expecting it to actually grow during the summer, but just to stay alive, if so, you can maintain it even in deep shade. Do fertilize it occasionally or its fronds will yellow. If any fronds or leaflets are damaged, just cut them off.
If the majesty palm is so popular in summer gardens, it’s not that people like it better than other palms, but because it’s dirt cheap. Nursery growers in the South can produce it rapidly, growing it from seed much faster than other palms. That means they can sell it cheaply and you can buy it at a very reasonable price. Adding it to your yard, balcony or deck automatically gives a feeling of tropical exuberance and indeed, the majesty palm (I have no idea where that name comes from) is being sold as the ideal palm for summer decoration.
However, if you ask the merchant about how to care for it once the cold nights of fall come around, you’ll likely be told, “Don’t bother! It’s an annual! Just toss it out with the rubbish!” What? Marigolds are annuals, nasturtiums are annuals, but palms are trees! How did this one become the “annual palm tree”?
It’s this throw-away, consumerist society we live in. No one expects anything to last. So if the merchant calls it an annual, maybe it is…
… or not! Like most gardeners, I felt I had to give mine a try. But I wisely didn’t wait until it got frosted: I always brought it in at the end of summer (late August or early September in my climate.).
Finally, I did let the cold kill mine last fall, though, three years after I bought it. It had just grown too large. I’d had to repot it as soon as I’d brought it home, it was that severely underpotted. It looked like it had been stuffed unwillingly into its pot by a mad nurseryman with a machete. It loved being in a bigger pot … so it grew, and grew, and grew. I repotted it two more times over the next two years. But by the end of its third summer, it was a big palm, with an actual trunk, and a surprisingly thick trunk, at that, plus long fronds arching up and out … and there’s the rub, because my plant room is barely 8½ feet (2.6 m) high and it was by now over 10 feet (3 m) tall!
I, of course, asked around, but nothing is harder to give away than an overgrown houseplant. And you can’t just chop the top off a palm tree and root it or expect the stub to grow branches. Palms don’t do either. (I know, I know, there are a few rare exceptions to the latter rule, like curious branching doum palm [Hyphaene thebaica], but no normal palms branch). So last fall, I left it out in my garden, where it continued to look tropical until the first hard frost killed it.
His Majesty Indoors
To be honest, I didn’t find the majesty palm to be most cooperative indoor palm. It clearly loathed dry indoor air, more than most palms, and spider mites quickly moved in. The first year, I was able to fit it into the shower and wash them off, a treatment needed about once a month. The following years, I had to put a plastic sheet under it and spray it with a garden hose. That turned out to be quite messy!
I managed to keep the humidity up to around 50% most days (I have a lot of plants), which it barely tolerated (I’m sure it would have preferred 60% or even 70%), but you could practically see the fronds crinkle up in horror on the rare days when it dropped to near 30%.
It would have loved brighter light too, plus longer days, but there was a limit in how much I was willing to invest in lighting.
As for watering, just run-of-the-mill houseplant watering (abundant watering, then waiting until the growing mix was nearly dry), seemed quite acceptable. And no, I didn’t fertilize it in the winter. Why would I want to press a plant to grow under low-light conditions? I have enough etiolated plants already!
So, I had to prune off yellow leaf tips and the occasional frond and wash off the spider mites, but still managed to keep it alive all winter, putting it outside when the weather warmed up … and where it put on 9/10ths of its yearly growth.
Outdoors in the Tropics
True enough, planted outdoors in tropical and subtropical climates (zones 9b-12), it will live for years, grow a thick, almost bottlelike trunk (actually called a stipe) and reach for the sky. (It will need a misting system in drier climates.) In its native Madagascar, where it is threatened with extinction, it can reach nearly 100 feet (30 m) in height, but it rarely reaches more than 40 feet (12 m) in culture.
So is the majesty palm an annual palm? It depends on how you treat it. But do be aware that, if you do decide to save it from the cold, it will eventually outgrow its allotted space!