There are about 2,600 species of palm trees spread over 181 genera within the Arecaceae family of plants. Most are tropical or subtropical in origin. Most palms are distinguished by their large, compound, evergreen leaves, known as fronds, arranged at the top of an unbranched stem. In addition to their role as landscape trees in warmer climates, palm trees can be distinctive and potentially wonderful indoor plants. Mature palms often adorn public spaces and foyers, adding an elegant and distinctly tropical air to the decor. At the same time, very small, immature palms are sometimes used as desktop plants.
It is tempting to think of palm trees as purely tropical plants—give them plenty of sun and water and they will be fine. But there are also desert varieties that will drown from too much water and other varieties that cannot thrive without fertilizer. Careful research on the particular species of palm is essential to growing it successfully.
|Botanical Name||Arecaceae family|
|Common Name||Palm tree|
|Plant Type||Woody perennial|
|Mature Size||Varies by species; miniature to towering giant|
|Sun Exposure||Bright indirect light|
|Soil Type||Loose, porous moist soil|
|Soil pH||Slightly acid to neutral|
|Bloom Time||Year-round (although difficult indoors)|
|Hardiness Zones||Varies according to species|
|Native Area||All over the world; mostly South America, the Caribbean, areas of the South Pacific and southern Asia|
How to Grow Indoor Palm Trees
Palm trees are a group of plants that includes thousands of species from the varied biomes of the world, and they have equally diverse needs. There are tropical, subtropical, and desert species, as well as palms that grow in Alaska. Some are understory plants that prefer shade and a moister, darker environment. Some palms may require fertilizer and others may not. A good rule of thumb, if you want healthy palms, is to make sure you feed them. This is true indoors just as it is true in tropical and subtropical gardens.
How to best display your palm depends on its size and growth habit. They are perfect as corner-specimen plants or foyer plants. Likewise, palms do very well in groups with smaller potted plants clustered at their base. Wherever you locate your palm, try to avoid too much traffic brushing against or pulling on the fronds—this will weaken the plant and possibly kill the frond.
Do not expect your palm to flower indoors. Many of the common species will not live long enough to flower or reach a mature size. Remember, some of these are full-fledged trees in the wild. The lack of flowers is more than offset by the majestic spread of the plant.
If you take good care of your palm, depending on the species, there is a possibility that fronds could be brushing against your ceiling after a few years. Unfortunately, you can never top-trim a palm tree. All palms grow from a central tip. If you remove the growing tip, the plant will die. So if you have a nearly mature palm bursting from your house, congratulations—the next step is to seek a nearby hotel or office building looking for a wonderful interior specimen plant.
One of the reasons palm plants are such common houseplants is that they can easily adapt to low-light conditions indoors. Most palms are tolerant or prefer the shade, and they will suffer if they receive direct sunlight. Low-light palm houseplants prefer bright indirect light but will tolerate less light, especially during the winter. Palms will not survive if there is no natural light in the room; in this case, they require a grow light. The parlor and kentia palm (Howeia spp.) prefer partial shade and will suffer in direct sun. Others, including the pygmy date (Phoenix roebelenii) and mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta), can tolerate much more light.
The best soil for palm trees growing in pots is a loose, porous soil mix, such as a combo of peat moss, leaf mold, and shredded bark. You can also buy cactus and palm soil mix specifically made for growing palm plants; otherwise, they will grow just fine in a general-purpose commercial potting soil. If you tend to forget to water your plants, then you can mix some peat moss or vermiculite into the general-purpose potting soil to help retain moisture.
Good drainage is essential. Just because palms live in warm, sometimes tropical regions does not mean they are water plants. In fact, many palms grow best in slightly sandy soil with perfect drainage. Never let a palm's root ball sit in water.
Temperature and Humidity
Few palms will thrive in colder temperatures, and some, like the coconut palm, cannot tolerate any cold at all. The cold-hardy palms include the parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans) and kentia palm, which partly explains why these are the most popular indoor palms. These palms prefer nights down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Feed your palm regularly during the growing season. If possible, use a palm fertilizer, which will contain all the required micronutrients as well as extra potassium and manganese. Potassium deficiency is especially common in palms—and the condition results in yellowing or brownish fronds.
Potting and Repotting
Only repot a palm when it is completely pot bound. Palms often have shallow root systems, and they do not appreciate being disturbed. Many of the most common palm trees grown indoors, such as the kentia palm, want to become trees. You can slow down palm growth by keeping it slightly pot-bound—do not repot it every year, and it will not grow as quickly.
Propagating Indoor Palm Trees
For most palms, air layering, cuttings, and division are for the most part not effective for propagating palm trees. Usually, the best way to start a palm tree is from seed.
However, you can achieve success by transplanting certain varieties, including sago palms, date palms, and ponytail palms, which will produce offshoots called pups. These palm pups are an excellent way to propagate the plant.
Trim your palm carefully. The temptation is hard to resist, but many species of palms draw nutrients from old fronds long after they have begun to yellow or even brown. It is a very common mistake to over-prune palm trees, which weakens the overall plant and robs it of valuable nutrients. In general, remove fully browned leaves and never cut your palm down to just one or two new fronds.
Common Pests/ Diseases
Indoor palms trees are often prone to potassium deficiency, signaled when the oldest leaves begin to die back, beginning with the tips. A controlled-release potassium supplement is the best treatment. But if the tips of all leaves turn brown, it is often due to excessive fertilizing.
Like other houseplants, spider mites, mealybugs, and scale insects can be a problem. They are best treated with insecticidal soaps.