Larry Hodgson has published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings available to the public. This text was originally published in Gardens West in November 1991.
Palm trees have been a part of home decoration since the Victorian era. In fact, nothing says “tropics” as clearly and completely as a homegrown palm. However, although palm trees are considered “easy-to-grow” plants, they do have particular needs.
What Is a Palm?
Let’s start off by saying that palm “trees” are not even trees at all. Should you cut one down (take my word on this) you’ll find that their “trunks” (more correctly, “stems”) are formed, not of wood, but of parallel fibers and are held up by the pressure of the sap rising up to the terminal bud. Palm trunks have no rings, as do trees, and are not useful for building: when the plant dies, its trunk loses its turgidity and simply flops over. The trunk can be green or brown and is marked with scars showing where leaves were once attached.
Palm trees are also unusual in that, except for one lone rarely grown species, they do not branch. Should the terminal bud on your palm be damaged, that stem will die. Some palms do produce offsets at the base, but otherwise palm trees cannot be trimmed back. When yours hits the ceiling, you’ll just have to cut a hole!
Palm leaves (often referred to as fronds) have two basic leaf shapes. Fan leaves grow out from a central point like fingers on a hand. They are said to be “palmate”. Feather leaves have a central rib with leaflets appearing on either side. These are said to be “pinnate”. There are, of course, multiple variations of these two forms, from twice-divided feather leaves (bipinnate) to narrow, pointed leaflets, to wedge-shaped ones. And young palms bear undivided leaflets that make them almost grass-like.
I suspect that many people think of only one kind of palm tree, the coconut palm, or at most, maybe 4 or 5 kinds that can be grown indoors. In fact, almost 3,000 varieties of palms could theoretically be grown indoors.
And the coconut palm itself (Cocos nucifera) is far from an ideal houseplant, although young specimens, just sprouting from their huge seed, are sometimes sold as such. Mature coconut palm fronds can actually measure 6 m long. Just try to fit one of these into your living room!
They simply don’t thrive indoors and die before ever producing their characteristic leaning trunks and pinnate leaves. They should be considered temporary curiosities limited to full sun locations only.
Perhaps the most common palms currently available are in the genus Chamaedorea, all with pinnate leaves. The most popular of these is the miniature palm, C. elegans (also known as Neanthebella). Seedlings of miniature palms are often sold as terrarium or dish garden plants, and although they will eventually outgrow these uses, they nevertheless remain tiny for many years.
I have been growing one since I bought it as a child over 25 years ago, and it is still under 1 m in height. I can expect it to reach 2 m… in another 25 years! Unlike most palms, the miniature palm blooms abundantly indoors from an early age, but the yellowish flowers are more curious than attractive. C. elegans never produces offsets, although it is often sold as a multi-stemmed cluster (this is done by planting several plants in the same pot).
Its close relative, C. seifrizii, is a much faster-growing species. Its leaflets are well spaced on cane-like stems, giving it its common name, bamboo palm. This clustering species readily bears offsets which can be removed and repotted separately, but which are usually left in place, as single stems are rather barren in appearance. All Chamaedorea palms tolerate extremely low light, although moderate light is preferable.
Among larger palms, the current favorite has to be the areca or butterfly palm, Dypsis lutescens. It is a clustering, nearly stemless palm with feathery fronds and a golden appearance due to the yellow shades of the leaf stalks and also due to the golden flecks on its leaves caused by the spider mites that generally infect it. The butterfly palm is often the focal point of indoor decors. But, in spite of its popularity, it is not the easiest plant to grow, due to its insect problems. It likes moderate light conditions.
If you are looking for a spray of fern-like fronds atop a thick, woodlike trunk, none of the palms mentioned will fit the bill, as they don’t have much in the way of a trunk. Date palms (Phoenix) are the exception to this rule and produce a rough and rugged looking trunk topped off with stiff, prickly featherlike fronds.
Most, like the true date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), are huge specimen plants but the miniature date palm, P. roebelenii, is more compact, only reaching 2 m after many years of growth. It also differs from the other date palms in its clustering appearance (the others bear single trunks). Specimen plants of this genus are extremely expensive, but you can grow a nice, inexpensive date palm in only a few years from seed. Just use unpitted, unpasteurized dates (available from health food stores) and remove the seeds for planting. Date palms require bright light to full sun.
A Curious Palm
Perhaps the most curious of the indoor palms is the fishtail palm (Caryota mitis), whose leaflets are broadly wedge-shaped and cut irregularly at the tips like a ragged fishtail. Its fronds are also doubly compounded (bipinnate), giving it a lacy appearance. It grows slowly and prefers high light.
The true Victorian palms are in the genus Howea. The Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) is perhaps the quintessential indoor palm, with a narrow brown trunk and long pinnate fronds. It is usually grown several plants to a pot and fits in the medium to large size range, eventually but ever so slowly reaching ceiling height. Its close relative, the sentry palm (H. belmoreana) is similar but with narrower leaflets. I suspect the only reasons these palms are not more popular (and they are quite rare these days) is that their seed is rare and they are slow-growing, making them more expensive than other palms. They are worth every cent, however, as they are tough as nails and, unlike most other palms, practically immune to spider mites. Their tolerance of low light is another plus.
Tough as Nails
Another palm which merits wider use than it gets is the lady palm (Rhapis excelsa). It bears narrow, clustering stems covered with ragged brown fiber and palmate leaves, which look like they have been trimmed at the tips with pinking shears. In many of the numerous (and very expensive) dwarf Japanese cultivars, the fronds are strongly variegated. Slow-growing, but tough as nails, the lady palm is better known to interiorscapers, who know that they can trust it to survive low light better than just about any other plant, than to amateur growers. Definitely a palm to discover!
There are, of course, plenty of other indoor palms to try, including the European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), a sun lover, which is actually hardy outdoors in parts of BC; the Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis) with its broad, elegant fronds and good tolerance of low light; and the dwarf areca palm (Areca catechu), a small sun-loving palm often called the miniature coconut palm because it sprouts from seeds that look like small-scale coconuts. And for a palmlike look indoors, try numerous kinds of cycads, early plants that look so much like palms, they are often mistaken for them.
Each species of palm has its own needs, but it can generally be said that most palms prefer rich, well-draining potting mixes and deep pots as their roots tend to reach downward. Also, repot them only when pot-bound as they dislike being disturbed. Keep their mixes slightly moist at all times, watering thoroughly when they approach dryness. A water meter is useful for bigger palms, as it can otherwise be hard to tell whether the mix in a large pot is actually dry throughout or only dry on the surface. Light needs for each palm are given with the species description.
Finally, I couldn’t possibly describe palm trees without mentioning their “spider mite problem”. In fact, with the exception of the genera Howea and Rhapis, most indoor palms already have a resident population of these pests when you purchase them, even when you deal with the most reputable growers. Of course, a few spider mites have never hurt anyone (they are pretty much universal in plant collections), but once they get to the point where they damage the plant’s foliage, something has to be done. The best treatment is to wash the leaves thoroughly with warm, sudsy water to reduce the population, then to treat weekly with insecticidal soap until the problem seems under control. You can keep spider mite problems to a minimum by maintaining high air humidity around your plants. To do so, use a humidifier.
Elegant and unusual, palms are the ideal decorator plants for the modern decor. Try one today!
I love palm trees and is one of the reasons I wanted to live in Florida from the time I was a child!
A few years ago, I found a seed in a package of ‘seed free’ dates. I planted it and now have a gorgeous little palm in the house. Big smiles!