Success With the World’s Worst Houseplant

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Underpotted sprouting coconuts sold as houseplants were all the rage 6 or 7 years ago. Photo: gardengoodsdirect.com

Back in 2014, I wrote a blog which I entitled Possibly the World’s Worst Houseplant, in which I suggested the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) might just be the worst houseplant ever. It was, at the time, being sold as an easy-to-grow houseplant in the form of a sprouted coconut with a few grasslike juvenile leaves.

Sprouting coconuts generally decline very quickly under average indoor conditions. Photo: Capnspleen, reddit.com

My experience is that such plants inevitably fail fairly quickly, unable to thrive under the poor light, insufficient heat, dry air and subsequent spider mite infestation (spider mites, Tetranychus urticae, come out in droves on palms grown in dry air) that occurs in the average home. Besides, who has the room for a plant with 13 foot (4 meter) fronds? Even botanical gardens fail with this species in their tropical greenhouses. What hope could such a plant possibly have in the average home?

Damien Lekatis’ happy coconut palm. Photo: Damien Lekatis

Well, wouldn’t you know someone would prove me wrong? Damien Lekatis, of Montreal, recently sent me a picture of his 7-year-old coconut palm, repotted into a large pot, obviously doing very well, with fronds even starting to split and look palmlike. 

Daniel attributes his success to watering with aquarium water, then adds. “I think that the constant movement caused by the ceiling fan (it’s on all the time) and the humid heat from the old-school radiators are helpful. Electric radiators would probably dry it out.” He lives in Montreal, Quebec, Canada where “our winters are crazy brutal and last about 5 months. Summers are humid and hot.”

I’d like to add the huge sunny window likely didn’t hurt, either, nor did removing it from the confinement of a small pot and replanting it into large tub! 

Three-year old coconut palms in the tropics typically have fully formed pinnate fronds and have started to form a stipe. Photo: http://www.touristmaker.com

Do note the palm has remained in its juvenile form. The original coconut is still visible at the base and the fronds, which start out simple on a sprouting coconut and should be fully pinnate at seven years, are just transitioning to that form. Plus, there is no visible stipe (trunk) while a coconut palm of age of 7 years growing on a sunny tropical beach would normally have a thick stipe some 6 feet (2 m) high and would likely be producing a few coconuts. 

So, Damien, you have proved me wrong. But I still don’t think that coconut palms make good houseplants. Damien has been very lucky and proven himself very skillful!

The period when sprouted coconuts in pots were being sold cheaply everywhere seems to be over. If you want to try Daniel’s method without breaking the bank, you might have to obtain a still-husked coconut and sprout it yourself.

Possibly the World’s Worst Houseplant

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These days you may see a curious houseplant on sale in box stores and garden centers: a baby coconut (Cocos nucifera), freshly germinated, its huge nut still visible, very tightly packed into a pot and probably with roots coming out of the drainage holes. This really is a coconut palm… but it is not  a good houseplant!

Although the idea of growing a coconut tree in the house may seem very attractive, in fact, it is almost impossible to grow this plant indoors. First, it requires very intense light, being intolerant of shade even on the tropical beaches on which it grows naturally. It is essentially impossible to obtain so much light between 4 walls, even in a greenhouse and especially outside of the tropics. Secondly, it needs air high humidity, otherwise spider mites will devour it. And thirdly, temperatures need to stay above 75˚F (24˚C) all year long or it will slowly die.

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Coconut palm under happier conditions.

Of course, do you even have enough room for a plant whose fronds reach 13 to 20 feet (4-6 meters) long and whose (trunk), up to 100 ft (30 m)? Anyway, the plant will not live long enough to form a trunk… especially in the small pot in which it is sold.

Just to give you an idea, even the great botanical gardens of the northern hemisphere (Kew, Montreal, Berlin, New York, etc.) are not able to cultivate this large palm tree other than for very short periods and focus instead on more cooperative palm species. Do you think you have more than horticultural skills than they do?

I suggest you simply avoid purchasing this plant. If you want to grow a palm tree indoors, there are many other species that grow there easily and are found without difficulty in garden centers. So why waste your energies on a plant that will likely survive only a few months, going downhill all the way?

If ever it’s too late and you’ve already bought one, at least repot it into a bigger pot. When you see plants with abundant roots reaching out of every drainage hole, that the plant is already suffering from the lack of space for its roots. You’ll have to cut the pot off, though: there’s no other way to extract the poor dying palm without seriously damaging it.