Growing the Chinese Fan Palm

palm tree
Photo © Rachid/Flickr

The Chinese fan palm, or fountain palm (Livistona Chinensis), is a hardy, slow-growing tree that derives its nickname from the fountain-like way its leaves droop down from the crown. Though native only to China and Japan, they’ve since become common across the world because of their adaptability and toughness; in fact, in parts of Florida, they’re considered an invasive species.

This is among the tougher species of palm – unlike most, it can tolerate cold and drought, making it a good outdoor palm for those who don’t live in the tropical heat most require. At its peak, the Chinese fan palm can reach thirty to forty feet tall, but in cultivation, it is kept much smaller and many gardeners grow them inside as potted houseplants. Their leaves grow in circular, segmented fans, and develop spines when they’re young that they lose as they mature. These wide and attractive leaves can range from a deep green to a more bluish green, and they produce small yellow flowers and black fruits when they bloom in the growing season. This is a good palm for beginners because of its hardiness.

Growing Conditions for the Chinese Fan Palm

The species is tolerant, but here are the ideal growing conditions:

  • Light: Lots of sunlight is best, but it can live in partial shade as well.
  • Water: These palms are drought tolerant and many live in dry areas like Texas and New Mexico. Though it does need some water, its watering can be scaled back once the growing season ends (especially if the plant is being kept indoors). Make sure not to overwater, or you risk killing it.
  • Temperature: One of the few frost resistant palm trees, the Chinese fan palm can tolerate temperatures as low as 20 F.
  • Soil: The palm can grow in any well-drained potting mix, and it tolerates many different growing media.
  • Fertilizer: This slow-growing palm can grow faster if regularly fertilized, which also will prevent it from developing a nutritional deficiency. An 8-2-12 palm fertilizer is best, and fertilization is even more important if it’s grown outside.

Propagation

They propagate by seed, although in practice it can take a very long time to germinate Livistonias, and you may be better served to buy a young specimen from a nursery. They can propagate from cuttings as well: remove the shoots and repot, making sure to keep the cuttings out of direct sun as their roots develop. New cuttings should be planted in soil rich in organic matter.

Repotting

Like most palms, the Chinese fan palm doesn’t really need to be repotted too often, especially because when grown inside in pots, their growth slows to a crawl. Planting the palm in a big enough pot for its root system should avert the need to repot, but if its soil is depleted or it outgrows its pot, it can be helpful. If so, make sure not to damage its fragile roots.

Varieties of Chinese Fan Palm

The Chinese fan palm is quite closely related to other Asian fan palms, like L. carinensis and the Australia red cabbage palm, but many of its relatives are very rare. In practice, it is often juxtaposed with other fan palms like the European fan palm, Chamaerops humilis, which it closely resembles.

Grower’s Tips

The biggest thing to remember about these palms is to fertilize them regularly, particularly during the growing season. Watch out for nutrient deficiency, especially potassium – discoloration of leaves is a possible sign of potassium deficiency.

It’s also good to prune the palm’s dead leaves at the bottom of the crown about once a year. They don’t have any big insect or disease problems but watch out for common pests like spider mites and fungal diseases like trunk rot. Don’t overwater them and give them lots of sunlight, as well. These are quite hardy plants, though, and will survive lots of conditions. Their toughness is the main reason that the Chinese fan palm is recommended for beginning gardeners.