Phoenix palms are among the oldest cultivated plants in the world—think Greek urns showing people eating dates, which come from a rarely grown variety of date palm in the trade. In the indoor nursery trade, two varieties of Phoenix palms are commonly seen: the pygmy date palm and the wild date palm. Among these, only the pygmy date palm is really well suited for indoor growth.
These palm trees remain fairly small—mature specimens rarely reach over six feet—they are relatively slow-growing, and they are tough enough to stand up to many indoor environments. Pygmy date palms are commonly grown with three seedlings to the same pot, so they look like multi-trunk palms, with three arching stems ending in graceful, feathery fronds.
Perhaps, the greatest recommendation against growing pygmy date palms indoors is their wicked spines. Their stems and leaf ribs are typically covered with long, very sharp and strong spines that can easily cause a nasty puncture.
- Light: Date palms like the brightest light that can be provided, including full sun.
- Water: Date palms, including pygmy date palms, do best when kept slightly on the dry side. These plants are typically from arid regions and are very sensitive to being over-watered.
- Soil: A peat-based mix is perfect, with lots of material for drainage. Palms appreciate good drainage to prevent water-logged roots.
- Fertilizer: Feed with a weak liquid fertilizer once or twice during the growing season and not at all during the winter. Be aware of potential deficiencies in magnesium, potassium, and manganese, which can cause leaf yellowing and decline. Supplement with these nutrients every few months.
Date palms are raised from seed, so it's unlikely the home grower will do much propagation. When coming across a viable date seed, know that they have a strange germination pattern, called remote germination. This means that the date palm seedling will emerge from the soil a short distance away from the actual seed. Seeds shouldn't be planted especially deep, and expect germination to take several weeks at least.
All varieties of date palms, including pygmy palms, do well slightly pot-bound, so repotting of mature plants should only be carried out every other year. For those who let plants go too long without repotting but still have a palm with strong roots, know that the pot will eventually break, if you use plastic. When repotting, be careful of the plant's spines, and use gloves.
There are a few varieties of Phoenix palms grown throughout the world. The most common indoor plant is the Phoenix roebelenii or pygmy date palm. In warmer climes, the P. reclinata, or wild date palm, is a common landscape plant that grows to a mature size of about 20 feet. Other date palms include the true date palm (P. dactylifera), the Canary Island date palm (P. canariensis), and P. sylvestris. These varieties are almost never found in the indoor plant trade.
The only truly suitable date palm for indoor growth is the pygmy date palm. Occasionally, wild date palms are seen growing in large public venues like malls, but they aren't really appropriate for any kind of residential setting. Pygmy date palms are hardy and durable palms and make excellent accent plants. They do best with loads of light—in lieu of adequate light, cut back or cease fertilization so the plant doesn't stretch and become ungainly. To keep the fronds green, especially older fronds, use a little magnesium sulfate every few months. Date palms are vulnerable to pests including mites, aphids, mealy bugs, scale, and whitefly. If possible, identify the infestation as early as possible, and treat with the least toxic option.