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Palm Plants Indoors: Home

Bamboo-like stalks of Chamaedorea seifizii (bamboo palm); photo by Marlon Co
Multiple, bamboo-like stems of Chamaedorea seifrizii (bamboo palm); photo by Marlon Co

What is a Palm?

Palms are members of the more than 200 genera and 2500 species that make up the Arecaceae family. Diverse in form, they grow on every continent (except Antarctica) and in zones from tropical to arid. Those that we  grow in our homes are usually immature, tropical or subtropical plants that look quite different from the tall, trunked trees of the tropics. Palm houseplants may grow from a low central point, from a clump of leaf stalks or from several slim stems. All are characterized by their growth from a single, central growing point within the clump or at the end of each stem.

Most palms will produce only one or two new fronds a year. Slow growth is a characteristic that reduces their commercial viability, so there are a limited number of species that are regularly found in the home. Most types do not mature to the point of producing flowers when grown indoors.

An important factor in determining the suitability of a plant to your home and envisioning the care it will need, is to know the origin of the plant. Plants that are native to desert regions will require substantial amount of sunlight and loose, fast-draining soil. Plants from the floor of a rainforest will need some protection from strong sunlight and generous humidity.

Houseplant palms mostly originate in tropical forest and as immature plants would fall beneath the tree canopy in bright, dappled light. They need humidity, air circulation, cool winter temperatures and protection from strong light. Some can be successfully grown in your home without too much effort.

Light:

Growing a palm plant indoors requires providing it with the bright but indirect sunlight of a lower canopy tree daily. A room with a bright southern or eastern exposure is usually most successful.  Rotate your palm's pot weekly so that all sides of the plant receive equal light. Palms will tolerate poor light conditions but their health will slowly deteriorate. In summer, you can place your plant outdoors in brighter (but not direct) light. Acclimate it to this change in venue slowly.

Water and Humidity:

Water actively growing plants generously, until water runs out of the bottom of the pot. Do not let the pot sit in the runoff water. Delicate roots will rot easily if over-watered. Allow the top inch or so of soil to dry before re-watering.

During the winter, let your plant have a rest and reduce watering to suit the winter temperature of the room and the shorter days. At this point in the year, your palm can benefit from soil that is kept barely moist for a period of approximately two months.

Palms may become brown at the leaf tips if humidity is low but will not decline in health. For cosmetic reasons, adding humidity to the environment with misting, humidifying or a pebble tray is advised.

Temperature:

Normal room temperatures are fine with best growing conditions between 65º and 75º, and a 10º temperature drop at night. In summer heat, the plant must have good air circulation but be kept out of drafts. In winter, day temperatures should be kept 5 to 10º cooler but most prefer night temperatures to remain above 55º.

Do not subject the plant to temperature shocks from open windows, dramatic shifts in location, air conditioning or heating vents.

Re-potting:

Drainage is an essential part of palm care and a potted palm should rest on one to three inches of small stones or pebbles in the base of the pot. Regular potting soil is fine with added peat and perlite. A hole in the bottom of the pot is a must.

Palms are very sensitive to re-potting so be careful not to damage the roots in the process and do not change pots if it isn't necessary. If thick, fleshy roots appear from around the top edges of the pot, it is time to move up a pot size. Re-potting should be needed only every two to three years.

If your palm is large, make sure that the new pot is heavy and will support the plant. Breaking the old pot is the simplest way to protect the fleshy though delicate roots in the process of replanting. Leave two inches of room above the soil for expansion as the roots of your plant grow and press the soil securely around the root ball.. Topdress the pot with and inch of fresh soil in years that you are not re-potting.

Nutrition:

Feed only during the active growing season, March through October. Palms grow slowly and do not need a lot of fertilizer but they can suffer from a number of nutritional deficiencies.  About two, summertime, half-strength feedings with a palm-specific, slow-release food is adequate. Do not allow the soil to become compacted so that nutrition is restricted.

What to Watch for:

Palms do not tolerate drafts or sudden environmental changes well and should be positioned away from heating and air conditioning vents.

Leaf tips, particularly on young leaves, may be very sensitive and can turn brown if touched when brushing by the plant. Be particularly careful with leaf contact when watering your palm.

Gently wipe leaves occasionally with a damp cloth.

Brown or yellow leaf spots are typically a signal that the plant is being over-watered or a sign of sudden temperature change. If lower leaves are turning brown, that can be a natural aging process and these leaves may be trimmed off.

Spider mites can be a pest in overly-dry settings. Rinse your plant with a strong stream of water to physically remove them.

The beautiful fan type fronds of <em>Chamaerops humulis</em> (European fan palm); photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ Forest and Kim Starr
The beautiful fan type fronds of Chamaerops humulis (European fan palm); photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ Forest and Kim Starr

Some Recommended Palms to Grow Indoors:

Howea forsteriana (kentia or paradise palm) and Chamaedorea elegans (syn. Neanthe bella; parlour palm) 

can thrive in lower light situations than most other palms. A kentia palm is native to the south pacific and is slow growing but may reach 8 feet or more. The parlour palm, a Mexico native, is also slow growing so while it can reach 8 feet or more, it is frequently seen at a height of only two to three feet. In winter they should  be watered sparingly.

Kentia palms hate re-potting but make great houseplants if given good soil, plenty of water and at least dappled sunlightChamaedorea is a genus of palms from Central and South America, with strong vertical growth and little need for repotting as long as the soil drains well and is topdressed.

Chamaedorea seifrizii (bamboo palm)

is another upright palm that can tolerate lower light and is a good palm for a beginner. It is a multi-stemmed plant that can reach heights up to six feet tall.  Native to the highland forests of Mexico and Central America, this plant prefers a slightly warmer room (75 to 80º) with a 15º temperature drop at night. Lower leaves turn yellow and fall off (or can be removed) as the plant grows.

Chamaerops humilis (European fan palm)

is the hardiest indoor fan palm, growing naturally in the most northern locations of any palm, including in parts of southern Europe. It can be grown as a single-stemmed tree if suckers are removed, otherwise it forms a wide, dense clump. Trim yellowing leaves as the tree grows.

As a Mediterranean native, European fan palm is comfortable in the dry atmosphere of a Northeastern home in winter. It benefits from low night temperatures and a cool rest period during the winter with temperatures kept between 50 and 60º.

Phoenix roebelenii (pygmy date palm)

is native to Southeast Asia and has dense, feathery, pinnate fronds growing from a thick, single trunk. This tree prefers high humidity and  temperatures between 65 and 75º, and never below 50º. It grows slowly and typically reaches less than 6 feet tall. Remove yellowing lower leaves as plant grows.

Rhapis excelsa (lady palm)

is a smaller fan palm, with elegant leaves and which grows in a quite upright manner, making it popular for smaller rooms. There are numerous cultivars of various proportions, from 6 inches to 6 feet tall. It can do well in a position with Eastern light but needs consistent moisture once established.

Palm-like Plants:

There are numerous palm-like plants that are popular with houseplant lovers. Plants with thick trunks or bases and leafy canopies, such as Dracaena, Cordyline, Yucca and some cycads, are frequently mistaken for palms. It should be noted that these palm-like plants may need quite different cultural care than true palms. For more information on growing the very popular Dracaena, please refer to our Dracaena guide.

Corsyline fruticosa 'Hot Pepper' is sometimes mistaken for a palm plant; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
The frond-like growth of plants like this Cordyline fruticosa 'Hot Pepper' may cause it to be mistaken for a palm; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

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