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All About Potted Palms

Majesty Palm

Potted palms bring us a touch of the tropics and lend us a moment to daydream about past travels to warm and exotic places.  With their architectural foliage, glossy leaves, and attractive textured trunks, palms make wonderful specimen plants.

To keep indoor palms healthy, we must replicate the environment that they would prefer in their native habitat.  With palms, this is high humidity, warm temperatures, and good air circulation.  But, not all palms are created equal.  Some thrive only in a brightly lit sunny location, while others tolerate lower light levels.  Even the so-called “shade-tolerant” palms need fairly bright, indirect light most of the day.  Without adequate light, your palm will begin to lose it’s lower fronds and resemble a stick, or series of sticks, with a few leaves on top.  Since palms are rather slow-growing and generally more expensive than other houseplants, consider the location in your home carefully.

We measure light in footcandles.  In the evening, inside your home, with a TV and a table lamp on you might have 25 footcandles.  The light in an office or study, where it is easy to read a book, is usually about 125 footcandles.  Sunlight entering a south window often has levels of 500-800 footcandles.  A typical shaded greenhouse, where indoor plants are grown, has about 2000 footcandles.  Outside, on a sunny summer day, with the sun directly overhead, light measures around 10,000 footcandles. Needless to say, you will seldom have as much light inside your home or office as in the nursery where the plants were grown.  Bright indirect light (around 500 footcandles) is as much light as you can find indoors without being in the sun.

Though their light requirements may differ, most palms have similar needs when it comes to water and fertilizer.  Keep palms uniformly moist, but not wet. In spring and summer, or when temperatures are warm and days are longer, water them as soon as their soil feels dry a little below the surface.

If you are running the air conditioner or it is winter, allow the soil to get slightly drier, almost one-third or half way down from the top of the soil. Then, water thoroughly.  It is important that the potting soil drains well, and containers you use have functioning drainage holes.

Off color? It’s no joke!  Palms sometimes develop symptoms of nutrient deficiency, often related to a shortage of magnesium or potassium.  Pale color, striped-looking leaves, or dark specks on the leaves are all symptoms of too little fertilizer.  Use a fertilizer formulated specifically for palms.  We recommend Jack’s Classic Palm Food, 16-5-25.  It has magnesium and extra potassium which palms require.  You can supplement with organic fertilizer Biotone, which is packed with micorrhizal fungi, which aid the palm in absorbing fertilizer.  Fertilize at half strength from early spring through late summer, per label instructions…but never when the soil is too dry.

Salt Build Up – A predictable problem of all houseplants, including palms, is the gradual build-up of salts in the soil caused when the water evaporates, leaving behind calcium and sodium, similar to the inside of your teapot.  This, in addition to a build-up of fertilizer salts, will result in those dreaded brown tips and edges, especially if you allow the soil to get too dry between waterings.  The treatment for this malady is to take the plant outside (or to the bathtub), twice a year, and saturate the soil about a dozen times, leaching out all the salts.

Spider Mites – Keep palm fronds clean by taking your plant to the shower every two months and washing off the leaves. Spider mites are attracted to dusty foliage and can balloon into a serious problem, particularly in winter, when relative humidity is low indoors. Place your palms on extra large saucers, filled with damp gravel, to provide extra humidity.

Pick Your Palm
So which palm is best for you?  Palms are rated by Behnke Staff in terms of degree of difficulty for long-term survival indoors (more than a year) relative to other palms, with 1 being the easiest, 5 being the most difficult.:

Parlor Palm

The Parlor Palm — Degree of difficulty: 1
Also known as the Neanthe Bella Palm, Chamaedorea elegans, the parlor palm is a slow-growing, dwarf palm that has more shade tolerance than any other. A shrubby plant with many stems or canes, you’ll find it available in sizes ranging from only eight to ten inches tall, perfect for a desk or coffee table (in your parlor), to three feet in height.

The Bamboo Palm & The Reed Palm — Degree of difficulty: 2
Two close relatives ofthe parlor palm are the Bamboo Palm, Chamaedorea erumpens, and the Reed Palm, Chamaedorea seifrizii, which share the ability to survive in relatively low light. However, they can grow to seven feet, especially in a brighter location. You should expect to lose some of the interior foliage as your palm begins it’s acclimation to your indoor setting, exposing stems that resemble bamboo and reed grass.

The Kentia Palm — Degree of difficulty: 3
The Kentia Palm, Howea fosteriana, is a tall, stately, slender plant with gracefully arching large fronds. It is a single trunked species, but is often planted as three or four plants to give the appearance of being a clumping palm.  This palm does best in “medium” rather than “low” light locations and will tolerate the soil drying out a bit.

Lady Palm

The Lady Palm — Degree of difficulty: 2
Lady Palm, Rhapis excelsa, adds a distinctively “oriental” look to interior landscapes. Like the Kentia palm, it is slow-growing and suitable for medium light locations.  You will find it priced on the high end of the scale, like the Kentia, due to the long time it takes to grow to a marketable size.  Lady palms are shaped like shrubs rather than trees, with many thin stems growing from the soil. Their unusual dark green foliage consists of several leaflets on each frond, joined so as to remind you of fingers on a hand.  A lady’s hand, no doubt.

The Majesty Palm — Degree of difficulty: 5
To survive in the home, majesty palms, Ravenea rivularis, need higher light than most, and moister soil. Place it directly in front of an east-facing window in the summer, and in winter move it to a west or south-facing window.  When the soil feels dry to the touch, water thoroughly, but don’t let it stand in water. They hate dry air, so it will be best in a home with a humidifier in the winter.

The Areca Palm — Degree of difficulty: 3
The areca palm, Dypsis lutescens, is a fast-growing palm outdoors, indoors it’s best in a window with good light (see majesty palm). It is prone to rot if overwatered, so make sure to allow it to dry between waterings and never stand in water.  The areca palm seems to be more prone to spider mite attack than most houseplants so watch for speckling on the leaves or webbing primarily in the drier air of winter.

The Fishtail Palm — Degree of difficulty: 4
The fishtail palm, Caryota, grows as an understory tree in the rainforest so it performs best with humidity and bright but not hot sunlight. Water when the top of the soil begins to feel dry.  They seem to be more prone to fertilizer deficiency issues than most, so make sure to use the recommended palm fertilizer but only when the soil is moist, to avoid burning the roots.

Editor’s Note:  Our inventory is constantly changing.  If you are looking for a specific palm, please call before coming in to make sure we have it in stock.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 2 Comments

    1. Licuala Cordata is not only rare but very difficult to grow in this zone. It is related to fan palms, one variety that Behnke Nurseries will carry in March is the Chinese Fan Palm, Livistona Chinensis. It is certainly easier to find, but does require more sunlight than most palms year round, thus making it moderately difficult to maintain.

      Mike Bader (buyer)
      The Behnke Nurseries Co.

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