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, these specimens have become common across the world because of their adaptability and toughness. In fact, in parts of Florida, the Chinese fan palm is considered an invasive species.

The Chinese fan palm is among the tougher species of palm trees. Unlike many other palms, the Chinese fan palm can tolerate cold and drought making it a good outdoor palm for those who don’t live in the tropical heat most palms require. At its peak, the Chinese fan palm can reach 30 to 40 feet tall, but in cultivation it is kept much smaller and many gardeners grow them inside as potted houseplants.

The leaves of the Chinese fan palm 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. The Chinese fan palm is a good palm for beginners because of its hardiness.

Growing Conditions

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

  • Light: Ideally, lots of sunlight is best, but the Chinese fan palm 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 the palm 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 this plant, or you may risk killing it.
  • Temperature: The Chinese fan palm is one of the few frost resistant palm trees, and can tolerate temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Soil: The Chinese fan 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

The Chinese fan palm propagates by seed, although in practice it can take a very long time to germinate and you may be better served to buy a young specimen from a nursery. These palms can also propagate from cuttings, just 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 a soil rich in organic matter.

Repotting

Like most palms, the Chinese fan palm doesn’t really need to be repotted often, especially when grown inside in pots, which slows their growth. 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, repotting can be helpful. If so, make sure not to damage its fragile roots during the transition to a larger pot.

Varieties

The Chinese fan palm is quite closely related to other Asian fan palms, like Livistona 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 in the Chinese fan palm, especially potassium deficiency. The discoloration of leaves is a possible sign of potassium deficiency in the Chinese fan palm.

It’s also good to prune the palm’s dead leaves at the bottom of the crown about once a year. These palms 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 the palm and be sure to give the plant plenty of sunlight, as well. These palms are quite hardy plants, and will survive lots of conditions. Their toughness is the main reason that the Chinese fan palm is recommended for beginning gardeners.