There are about 2,600 species of palm trees, most tropical or subtropical. Most palms are distinguished by their large, compound, evergreen leaves, known as fronds, arranged at the top of an unbranched stem. They are a distinctive and potentially wonderful indoor plant. 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. When it comes to palm trees, it is tempting to think of them as purely tropical plants—give them loads of sun and loads of water, and they will be fine. But, there are desert varieties that will drown from too much water or other varieties that cannot thrive without fertilizer.
- Botanical Name: Arecaceae
- Common Name: Palm tree
- Plant Type: Woody perennial
- Mature Size: Varies, miniature to towering giant
- Sun Exposure: Bright, indirect light
- Soil Type: Loose, porous moist soil
- Soil pH: Slightly acidic to neutral
- Bloom Time: Year-round (although difficult indoors)
- Hardiness Zones: Varies 1 to 11 (1, Alaskan Palm and 11, Hawaiian Palm)
- Native Area: All over the world; South America, the Caribbean, and areas of the South Pacific and southern Asia are regions of concentration
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. There are tropical, subtropical, desert, and 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 you have to 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 location. 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 put 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 you will end up with fronds brushing your ceiling after a few years. Unfortunately, you can never top-trim a palm tree. All palms grow from the central tip. If you cut off the growing tip, the plant will die. So if you end up with a nearly mature palm bursting from your house, congratulations, and maybe check to see if a nearby hotel is 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 will suffer if they get any 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, you will need a grow light. The parlor and kentia palm prefer partial shade and will suffer in direct sun. Others, including the pygmy date and Washingtonia palm, 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 colder hardy palms include the parlor and kentia palms, 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 micronutrients and extra potassium and manganese. Potassium deficiency is especially common in palms—it shows up in yellowing or brownish fronds.
Potting and Repotting
Only repot when the palm 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 inside, such as the kentia palm, want to become trees. You can slow a palm down by keeping it slightly pot-bound—do not repot it every year, and it will not grow as large as quickly.
Propagating Indoor Palm Trees
For most palms, air layering, cuttings, and division are for the most part not effective when starting palm trees. Usually, the best way to start a palm tree is from seed.
Although, certain varieties are successful for transplantation, like sago palms, date palms, or 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.