Gardener’s Grapevine

Indoors and Out, Palms Symbolize Warmth and Hospitality

by Fil Jessee


It makes no difference whether you call Braselton, Ga. or Bora Bora home, palms, more than any other trees on earth, are a symbol of warmth and hospitality for all humanity. And this in mind, I tend to become a little zealous in discussing their merits as both landscape and interior subjects.

Nevertheless, as a former Floridian, I can’t imagine life without them. Indoors, palms soften the harsh lines of heavy furniture, frame the pass-throughs of today’s open floor plans, gently sway in air currents generated by ceiling fans and, when strategically lighted, cast enchanting shadows on walls and ceilings. And regardless of interior lighting conditions or the relatively humidity indoors, there are varieties of palms which can thrive in such locations. Yet, in spite of the number of varieties sold locally, it’s a good idea to bone up on your tropical botany to make certain that you select the ones best suited to the spot where you intend to position them.

There are three especially important facts you should consider in this regard. First, commercial growers of houseplants like to grow the varieties which reach eye-catching, marketable proportions in the shortest length of time. Second, palms grown in the ideal conditions of greenhouses can undergo considerable culture shock when relocated to the less than perfect conditions of a home’s interior. When grown in containers of three gallon or less soil capacity, palms can become very pot bound long before you purchase them. And tightly packed root systems greatly interfere with the ability of palms to absorb water and nutrients under typical home cultivation.

This is particularly true of species which tend to spread rapidly by means of horizontal runners.  Among these, Butterfly Palms (Areca), Bamboo and Mermaids Tail Palms (Chameadorea) and Lady Palms (Rhapis) are especially resentful of crowded containers and, therefore, should be repotted and divided periodically. 

Both Slender and regular Lady Palms are said to be among the most tolerant of poor lighting and dry conditions indoors. However, in the well-lighted foyer of my home, the two Lady Palms I purchased from Home Depot consistently developed brown tips on the fan-shaped fronds and three of the individual palms in the clusters died completely.  I later discovered two reasons for this. One, the plants were planted in a heavy sand mix that drained too quickly. And two, the clumps were entirely too large for the ornate plastic pots in which we obtained them. 

However, we successfully rescued both clumps by transplanting each to much larger pots filled with a well-drained but moisture retentive houseplant soil mix. We, then, relocated these to a shady spot outdoors where they slowly recovered throughout the warm and humid summer.  They are now back in the foyer, free of brown tips and trouble free.

Among favored palms for indoor use, Lady Palms are among the most expensive because it takes so long to obtain marketable specimens from seed. And even more costly, is the graceful Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana). Also known as The Paradise Palm, the Kentia is native only on Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific off the east coast of Australia.

From this single location, almost all seeds are obtained for commercial production.  Add to this the fact that Kentia seeds are erratic and difficult to germinate, and often won’t sprout at all if not absolute fresh, and it’s easy to see why the Kentias are considered the Rolls Royce of indoor palms. Nevertheless, the feather shaped coconut palm-like fronds of this beauty have graced the palm courts of major hotels and mansions since the Victorian age.  They remain popular today mainly because, once established, they can grow for generations in the same containers with minimal attention. 

Among houseplants, the Parlor Palm (Chameadorea elegans) is among the fastest and easiest of all indoor palms for the amateur to grow successfully.  Locally, you’ll find this one in the house plant sections of every garden center I can think of, and usually it’s in crowded pots of many small palms grown in tight clumps. These will do best and last longer if separated and grown singly or in groups of three.

Eventually, the Parlor Palm can reach a mature height of  six or seven feet, at which time staking may be required to keep the trunk from breaking under the weight of its own fronds.  In addition to its easy of growth, I like the fact that it’s one of the few palms that produces mature fronds from infancy. Other Chameadoreas and the majority of larger palms all produce undivided seed leaves resembling those of an Aspidistra with added pleats, and it make take a year or longer before these palms replace primary leaves with their typical feather or fan-shaped fronds.

For tolerance of neglect and hot dry conditions, try the Pigmy Date Palm (Phoenix roebelenii), another inexpensive species commonly available locally. This native of Laos and Southeast Asia becomes a graceful leaning specimen with age. Consequently, looks best when planted in groups of three.  Of all the palms I’ve mentioned thus far, the Pigmy Date is probably the most ideally suited to sunny patios and decks in the summer; indoors near a bright window in winter. This palm can also tolerate brief periods of frost, but not a hard freeze. Therefore, it can remain outdoors longer than moar other feather-leaved varieties suitable as houseplants.

Frost tolerant fan-leaved varieties suitable for indoor/outdoor culture include the European Fan (Chamaerops humilis), the Chinese Fan (Livistona chinensis), and the earlier mentioned Lady Palm.