University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

Palms are not just for the tropics and, in fact, can bring the feel of the tropics into your home.  Whether you have a contemporary interior, or a Victorian era home, palms will fit.  You can have small seedlings on tables and terrariums, to larger specimens in floor planters. Although the palm family, or Arecaceae, is large with many members, not all are suitable indoors.  Choose among the most common palms for indoors, and follow a few basic cultural needs for success.
Palms will tolerate a range of conditions, although they vary in preferences for best growth.  In general, they prefer bright natural light to grow best, such as from a window facing southeast or west.  Too little light, such as from a sparsely lit corner, and they’ll lose most of their leaves. 
Think of where they grow naturally, and it won’t be a surprise that they like warmth.  When actively growing, try to keep them above 60 degrees (F) at night, and 70 degrees or above during the day.  In winter, or when they aren’t making new leaves, they will tolerate a few degrees cooler.
Palms prefer even moisture.  Water when the soil just below the surface feels dry. Don’t allow them to dry out, or leaves (fronds) will brown, shrivel and not recover.  Soils that remain too wet, as from pots sitting in saucers of water, will lead to root rots and plant death.  Use a potting mix that is porous with plenty of organic matter (such as peat most), and that drains well.  Palms tend to prefer being pot-bound, so don’t be in a hurry to repot them into larger pots.   
Too dry air, as indoors in winter with forced air heat, can cause similar leaf browning as from too little water.  For such conditions, place plants near a humidifier, or on a tray of pebbles kept moist.
Use a liquid houseplant fertilizer, according to label directions and amounts, when plants are actively growing—usually spring and summer.  If leaves turn light yellow, and you haven’t fertilized in some time, plants may need fertilizer.  Some is good but more is not better, as too much fertilizer can damage roots and cause leaf tips to turn brown.  If in doubt, don’t fertilize.
Palms are not disease prone, the main one being root rots from overwatering.  Hard, brown scale insects can be wiped off leaves, or treated with sprays labelled for them.  White mealybugs can be wiped off with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. 
Mites are perhaps the main insect pest of palms, as they thrive on them in dry and warm indoor conditions.  Look under leaves with a magnifying glass, at least every week or two, for these minute pests moving about.  They cause a whitish to yellowish stippling of leaves, and cover undersides of leaves with a fine webbing.  Since these are not true insects, you’ll need a special miticide labelled for them.  Look for products for mites, such as soap-based ones or ones with rosemary oil.
Keep in mind that even though palms don’t grow fast, eventually many will outgrow their space.  Since they grow differently from most other houseplants, often with leaves from the base, you cannot prune back the tops to keep them shorter.  If they get too large for your space, don’t feel bad about donating or discarding them, and starting with a new younger plant.
There are several palms most commonly seen, and easiest to grow, indoors.  The parlor, or neanthe bella palm (Chamaedorea elegans) is one of the most common, is fairly compact, and is the best choice for low light conditions.  It is the one Victorians often used in their parlors.  A century later, it is one of the plants that NASA research showed can help to purify contaminants from indoor air. 
You often find parlor palm as a 6-inch tall seedling, although it can eventually reach 3 to 4 feet tall.  Usually there are several seedlings or plants clumped together in a pot. Similar and related, only growing a few feet taller, are the reed palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii) with narrow leaves on cane-like stems,  and the bamboo palm (Chamaedorea erumpens).  The latter has long, arching leaves in upright clusters on stems. 
Another really common palm is the areca palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens).  Fronds are long, feather-shaped, and arching with narrow leaflets.  This palm grows 6 to 10 inches a year, and reaches 6 to 7 feet tall indoors.
Kentia, or Sentry, palms (Howea fosterana) are slow growing, but eventually reach 6 to 12 feet tall indoors.  Outdoors they can reach 60 feet tall, as on their native Lord Howe Island off the Australia coast.  They’re one of the most durable indoor palms, tolerating lower light, lower humidity, and lower temperatures than most other palms. Kentia palms are attractive with graceful arching long fronds and a slender habit.
Lady palm (Rapis excelsa), like the Kentia palm, is slow growing and prefers medium light.  This palm has many thin stems arising from the soil.  Stems are dark brown and fibrous.  Each frond has several dark green leaflets.  These are thick, shiny, and with blunt tips.  This is the only palm that also has a variegated form.  You may find either large or miniature forms.
Fan palms have foliage that is fan-shaped, reach about 4 feet tall, and require higher light than other palms.  The Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis) has large leaves, appearing fringed at the tips.  The European or Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) has stiff, deeply cut leaves appearing lacey.

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