Episode 63: palms

Photograph by  tag.your_itt  on  Flickr .

Photograph by tag.your_itt on Flickr.

Chamaedorea elegans  in the landscape. Photograph: Scott Zona.

Chamaedorea elegans in the landscape. Photograph: Scott Zona.

Palms are one of the most enduringly popular houseplants: stars of the Victorian glasshouse, darlings of the art deco hotel dining room and now denizens of terrariums and terraces alike. This week's episode looks at some of the most commonly available palms to grow as houseplants, finds out how to look after them, and investigates some of the more unusual members of the clan. My guest, botanist Scott Zona, is a Miami, Florida-based palm expert: you can find him on Twitter as @Scott_Zona.

And I answer a listener question about a cactus that's refusing to produce new prickles, with the help of British Cactus and Succulent Society president Colin Walker (who I interviewed back in episode 59).

There are 2,500 species of palm worldwide, but don't be fooled by some of the common names: the sago palm is a cycad and not a palm for instance, while the Madagascar palm is a pachypodium in the milkweed family. Scroll down for a full list of all the palms mentioned in this episode plus some care tips, all courtesy of Scott. 

Interested in palms? Consider joining the International Palm Society.

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And now back to palms!

Thanks to Scott Zona for providing all the information in the notes below, listing some palms that are suitable for growing indoors. The palms are listed roughly in the order they are mentioned in the show so you can read as you listen. 

Chamaedorea elegans . Photograph by  ume-y  on  Flickr .

Chamaedorea elegans. Photograph by ume-y on Flickr.

Care tips: All of these palms grow best in bright, filtered light. They generally prefer to be watered thoroughly when the top 2-3cm or so of the potting compost dries out but before the root ball goes completely dry. The most common pests indoors are spider mites, which can quickly overrun a palm whose leaves do not get regularly washed by rain.

Parlour palm (Chamaedorea elegans - aka Neanthe bella)

A solitary pinnate palm that's easy to grow indoors. The palm is solitary, but nurserymen often put many seedlings in one pot to produce a fuller, leafier plant.

When grown as a houseplant, the parlour palm rarely produces fruits, which are shiny and black, borne on orange, branched stalks. In nature, this plant occurs in wet forests of southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala.


Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii) (synonym: C. erumpens)

Clustering pinnate palm. Millions of plants of this species are grown commercially and sold as houseplants or interiorscape plants all over the world. The slender stems are ringed just like bamboo. Some cultivated varieties have leaves in which the terminal leaflets are much wider than other leaflets.

 This palm was first discovered growing around the ruins of Chichen Itza, possibly established there by ancient Mayans for ornamental or religious use. 

Photograph: Scott Zona.

Photograph: Scott Zona.

Cat palm (Chamaedorea cataractarum)

Despite the common name, this clustering pinnate palm has nothing to do with felines. Chamaedorea cataractarum is adapted to growing in fast-moving water.

Chamaedorea cataractarum has several adaptations to its unusual habitat: the leaves can bend without breaking, and the stem branches and puts out roots wherever it contacts soil.

This one's easy to grow; because it grows in wet environments, Scott reckons it will tolerate some overwatering.

Rhapis excelsa 'Super Dwarf'. Photograph: Scott Zona.

Rhapis excelsa 'Super Dwarf'. Photograph: Scott Zona.

Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa)

A slow-growing, clustering palmate palm that's native to southern China and Vietnam.

It has been a popular houseplant in Japan for many centuries, and the Japanese have named cultivated varieties, many of which are variegated (ie they have white or yellow stripes in the leaves) and dwarf. 

Variegated forms can be very expensive, and they are slower and fussier than green form.

Lady palms send their roots to the bottom of the pot and will push themselves out of shallow pots, so make sure you use deep pots. The cultivar informally called ‘Super Dwarf’ (pictured) is very small and may be suitable for terrarium culture.

Areca palm aka bamboo palm (Dypsis lutescens)

Clustering pinnate palm. Although it is endangered in its native Madagascar, Dypsis lutescens is perhaps one of the most commonly cultivated ornamental palms in the world. The species name, “lutescens,” means “yellowish” and refers to the naturally yellow leaf stalks. Can get large.



Howea fosteriana   .  Photograph:  Crocus .

Howea fosteriana. Photograph: Crocus.

Kentia palm (Howea fosteriana)

A high-end, slow-growing pinnate palm that's solitary, but often sold as a cluster.

Too tender to grow outside in Europe, but it proved to be tolerant of cool, dry and poorly lit interiors. Engravings and photographs from the 19th and early 20th Centuries often depict the kentia palm elegantly gracing the corners of Victorian parlours, dining rooms, and drawing rooms.

The species (one of two in the genus Howea) is found in the wild only on Lord Howe Island, a very small island between Australia and New Zealand. 

Chinese fantail palm (Livistona chinensis) 

Livistona chinensis . Photograph:  Forest and Kim Starr  on  Flickr .

Livistona chinensis. Photograph: Forest and Kim Starr on Flickr.

This solitary palmate palm occurs naturally in southern Japan, Taiwan, and coastal China. It has bright green leaves have pendulous segment tips. Often grouped in pots. It will eventually get too big for indoor culture. The petioles are armed with sharp teeth.




Fishtail palm (Caryota mitis)

Caryota mitis . Photograph:  Forest and Kim Starr  on  Flickr .

Caryota mitis. Photograph: Forest and Kim Starr on Flickr.

Clustering bipinnate palm. Caryota mitis is a multiple-stemmed species from southern China, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines. This species is a popular container plant, because it is fast growing and forms a dense cluster of stems. It has a coarser texture than some other palms. 



Majesty palm (Ravenea rivularis)

Solitary pinnate palm. Ravenea rivularis is native to Madagascar. The name “rivularis” means “of rivers” and gives a hint to its natural habitat: wetlands, swamps and river banks.

Ravenea rivularis.  Photograph:  Leonora (Ellie) Enking  on  Flickr

Ravenea rivularis. Photograph: Leonora (Ellie) Enking on Flickr

In its natural habitat, this species gets to be very tall (up to 20m tall), with a thick trunk and a full crown of graceful leaves.

It is often sold as a potted houseplant (often 3 to a pot), giving the buyer no indication that this palm is a giant that will eventually outgrow its space.

Pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelinii)

Solitary or clustering pinnate palm. The species is a rheophytic palm, meaning that it is adapted to living in habitats affected by fast-flowing rivers.

Some of its adaptations includes flexible leaves and narrow leaflets. It also has naturally clustering stems, although in cultivation, the stems are usually solitary (although nurserymen often plant three or more palms together in one pot).

Phoenix roebelinii   .  Photograph:  CGWF  on  Flickr .

Phoenix roebelinii. Photograph: CGWF on Flickr.

The lower leaflets are modified into sharp spines. Beware of growing this palm around small children or curious pets.

Chamaedorea metallica. Photograph by  Peganum  on  Flickr .

Chamaedorea metallica. Photograph by Peganum on Flickr.

Metallic palm (Chamaedorea metallica) 

A solitary pinnate palm with leaves that are a dark, dull, metallic green - almost black in the best individuals. Most plants have undivided leaves, but others can have irregularly or regularly pinnate leaves; there are admirers of each kind.

This palm is small and solitary, but nurserymen often put three or more plants together in a single pot to make a fuller, more appealing product. This Chamaedorea is slow-growing but durable and forgiving of interior environments. 


Ruffled fan palm (Licuala grandis)

Licuala grandis.  Photograph:  Forest and Kim Starr  on  Flickr .

Licuala grandis. Photograph: Forest and Kim Starr on Flickr.

Solitary palmate palm. Licuala grandis is prized by growers for its beautiful, nearly circular, fan-shaped leaves borne on slender, solitary trunks. The petioles are armed with teeth. This palm resents drying out, but nor does it want to be standing in water.

Scott Zona on hydrochory

If you were fascinated by Scott's mention of hydrochory, here's the tweet I refer to - the palms he mentions as being spread via water are coconuts (Cocos nucifera - these also make good houseplants as Scott points out) and Nypa fruticans.

Question of the week

Left shows the cactus when Dani bought it, and on the right its current state.

Left shows the cactus when Dani bought it, and on the right its current state.

Dani wants to know why her Mammillaria cactus hasn't put out the same kind of spines since she bought it. BCSS president Colin Walker suggests lack of light may well be the issue, and explains the spine system most cacti display: there's a useful blogpost by scienceblog.com here.

Want to ask me a question? Tweet @janeperrone, leave a message on my Facebook page or email ontheledgepodcast@gmail.com. There's an episode about moth orchids coming soon, so I'd particularly like to hear from anyone with a Phalaenopsis problem to solve.

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This week's show featured Roll Jordan Roll by the Joy Drops, Whistling Rufus by The Heftone Banjo Orchestra, An Instrument The Boy Called Happy Day by Samuel Corwin and Oh Mallory by Josh Woodward, all licensed under Creative Commons.