Palms: indoors

Tender palms are elegant specimen plants giving an exotic feeling to the house, sun room or conservatory.

Rhapis excelsa

Rhapis excelsa

Quick facts

Common name: Palm, coconut palm, kentia palm, date palm
Botanical name: Chrysalidocarpus, Cocos, Howea, Phoenix, Rhapis, Washingtonia
Group: Indoor houseplant
Planting time: Any season
Height and spread: Various
Aspect: Bright filtered light
Hardiness: Tender
Difficulty: Moderate

Cultivation notes

Several species for example parlour palm (Chamaedorea elegans) and kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) are easy to grow indoors, needing little special care and tolerating fairly low light levels. Others require more care but are still rewarding houseplants over a long period.

Temperature

A minimum winter night temperature of 10-13ºC (50-55ºF) is required, and slightly higher temperatures of 16ºC (61ºF) for Chamaedorea, Howea and Cocos. Day temperatures can be 3-8ºC (5-15ºF) higher in summer as long as ventilation is provided. Do not position palms near radiators or in draughty situations.

Light

Most palms prefer bright but indirect light in summer but in winter move to a brighter position such as near to a south- or west-facing window. Chamaedorea, Howea and Rhapis can tolerate quite low light levels, away from windows. Cocos and Chrysalidocarpus need good light levels. The leaves of most palms will be scorched by direct bright sunlight through glass.

Water and feeding

Allow the surface of the compost to slightly dry out before watering in winter. In summer, water so that the compost never dries out, but do not allow the plant to stand in excess water.

Newly potted palms should not be fed for six to eight weeks after potting. Then feed fortnightly from April to mid-September with a general purpose liquid fertiliser.

Humidity

If the room is centrally heated or becomes very hot in summer mist plants regularly. Sponge the leaves to prevent dust building up or stand outdoors in summer rain (but do not put out or leave out in the hot sun, as they would not be acclimatised to it and could soon scorch).

Maintain humidity by standing the container on tray of gravel, expanded clay granules (Hydroleca) or recycled lightweight aggregate (Hortag) and keep moist, with the water level slightly below the surface of the gravel.

Compost and potting

Palms can be grown in John Innes No 2, or multipurpose compost, repotting every two years in early spring if pot bound until plants are in 20-5cm (8-10in) pots. Ideally use a peat-free potting media formulated for indoor plants. If growing in larger containers less frequent repotting will be required. In years when not repotting, top-dress by removing a little old compost from the surface (5cm (1in) or so), replacing with fresh compost. Coarse sand can be added to the compost when repotting for extra drainage.

Pruning and training

No special pruning or training is required. Old leaves should be removed by cutting not pulling.

Propagation

Seed

Seeds should be sown as soon as possible after harvesting or purchase, as viability decreases after 8 to 16 weeks, depending on the species. Cover the seed to its own depth with seed compost. Larger seeds can be planted in a good proprietary potting medium. Place seeds of tropical species in a propagator with bottom heat of 25-30ºC (78-86ºF) or in moist compost inside a sealed polythene bag placed in an airing cupboard or similar very warm conditions. Temperate species will germinate in average warmth. Most species will germinate within two to three months but some may take up to two years.

The coconut palm is propagated by placing the whole nut to half its depth in the seed compost. Germination usually takes between four and eight months.

Keep moist until germinated. Pot up into 9cm (3½in) pots using John Innes No 1 compost as soon as the first leaf appears. Pot on as necessary, using John Innes No 2 potting compost. Be careful not to damage primary roots which are essential to seedling anchorage and water uptake. Primary roots are replaced by secondary, adventitious roots later on.

Offsets

Phoenix canariensis (canary island date palm) and Phoenix dactylifera (date palm) are propagated commercially by removing three-year-old offsets to perpetuate good fruiting cultivars.

Rhapis, Chamaedorea and Phoenix palms produce offsets. Offsets should be removed in spring with as much root as possible. Take care not to damage the parent plant. Grow on in a pot of John Innes No 2 compost just large enough for the roots.

Cultivar Selection

Some palms for growing indoors;

Archontophoenix alexandrae and A. cunninghamiana
Native to moist rainforest in Eastern Australia. Winter minimum temperature 12-15ºC (54-59ºF). Plants require a warm humid atmosphere and shade from direct sunlight.

Chamaedorea elegans (parlour palm)
Native to Central America growing on the forest floor in the shade of high rain forest. Winter minimum temperature of 16ºC (61ºF) is required. Humid conditions are necessary.

Dypsis lutescens (bamboo palm)
A tropical species native to Madagascar, where it grows in large thickets in forests, sand dunes and by streams. A suckering plant producing numerous stems. In the wild growing to 10m (30ft) but smaller in pots. Needs bright light. Somewhat cold sensitive when young. Winter minimum temperature of 13ºC (55ºF) is advisable. Sometimes misleadingly sold under the name Areca palm.

Howea belmoreana (Belmore sentry palm) and H. forsteriana (flat or kentia palm)
Native to Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific. Ventilate well in summer, or plunge outside from June to September. Tolerant of cooler temperatures and drier atmospheres: good house plants.

Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island date palm) and P. dactylifera (date palm)
Origin probably North Africa but long cultivated in the tropics and sub-tropics for its fruit and as an ornamental. P. canariensis can be grown outdoors in the far south west. Both these species will benefit from plunging outside in summer. If this is not possible ensure they have good light and ventilation.

Rhapis excelsa (bamboo palm) and R. humilis
Native to China and Japan, growing in shady tropical and sub-tropical forests. Low growing, bamboo-like clusters of stems. Winter minimum temperature 12-15ºC (54-59ºF). Require humidity and shade from hot sun.

Washingtonia filifera and W.× filibusta AGM (Washington palm)
Native to Mexico, Arizona and California, usually occurring in arid, rocky areas but where there is underground moisture. Winter minimum temperature 10-13ºC (50-56ºF), slightly lower for W.× filibusta. Requires full sun and moderate humidity. Rapid growth rate.

For more plant ideas see RHS Find a Plant.

Problems

Leaves with brown, dried tips: Can be due to underwatering or a dry atmosphere. If plants are in a warm room maintain good levels of humidity. Physical damage or draughts may occasionally be the cause of such damage. When cutting off dead leaf tips, do not cut into the green part of the leaf; leave a narrow brown margin.

Leaves with brown spots: Caused by overwatering or sudden chilling. Regular watering with very hard water can sometimes cause the same symptoms.

Leaves dull, lustreless: Low humidity levels. Maintain humidity, mist frequently, position or display plants in groups rather than singly.

Yellowing leaves: Some sporadic yellowing of the lower leaves will occur as part of the natural ageing processes. Severe yellowing of several leaves could be caused by underwatering.

Whole leaves turning brown: Lower leaves that yellow with age will eventually turn brown. If browning is severe, overwatering and accompanied rotting of the roots could be the problem. Remove leaves by cutting off at the stem and not by pulling.

Leaves wilting: May indicate over dry conditions or waterlogging.

Pests: Palms can be attacked by scale insects, mealy bugs and sometimes glasshouse red spider mite.


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