How to grow and care for palm trees

Nothing evokes a tropical island beach or desert oasis like a palm tree does. The coconut or date palms may be familiar to us all, but there is an abundance of palm trees, suitable for creating an exotic touch to our homes or gardens.

What you need to know about palm trees

Name: palms, palm trees

Height: varies according to species, from less than 1m up to 60m tall

Foliage: compound pinnate and palmate fronds, leaflets arising from stems or trunks. Variable, but predominately green; some silver, grey or red/brown with marked or variegated leaves.

Climate: most naturally occur in tropical and sub-tropical environments, with some also suitable for growing indoors or outside in sheltered temperate or mild growing environments.

Soil: fertile well-drained soils in the garden. A premium potting mix for indoor palms.

Position: full sun to shade, depending on variety. Many make very good indoor plants.

Flowering and fruiting: branch-like stems bear small cream, white, yellow, orange or pink sweet-smelling flowers, often with a conspicuous tough protective bract. Fruits can be large or small and fleshy (date) or hard (coconut).

Feeding: use a controlled-release fertiliser when initially planting, and two to three times during the warmer months.

Watering: will vary according to individual species, as there are tropical and drought-tolerant palms. Usually once per week, and more frequently during the hot summer months.

Palm Tree

Appearance and characteristics of palm trees

Most palm trees usually carry clusters of large compound leaves on top of single or solitary stems or trunks, sometimes with distinct rings or swellings. There are also numerous other varieties of palms, which may exhibit branching trunks, multiple or suckering trunks, or hooks and spines to climb up trees. They grow anywhere from under 1m up to 60m, so there are varieties suitable for growing in most garden or landscape situations. Palms also provide huge economic benefits around the world, being used extensively to produce oils, wax, food, wine, furniture, baskets, timber, clothing, medicines and dyes.

Climate

The extensive palm tree family Arecaceae contains over 200 different genera and more than 2800 species, and is found in most warm parts of the globe. The highest concentrations are in the wet equatorial rainforests of the tropics. Locations with abundant species include Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra, Central America and the upper Amazon region of South America. They are also found on tropical islands, including the Seychelles and Mascarene Islands, Madagascar, New Caledonia and Cuba and Hispaniola.

Most palm trees prefer warm, wet conditions but some have adapted and evolved to specialised environments, including deep shade, swamps and streams, and climbing through trees.  Some species are also able to survive in dry, harsh, arid environments with hardly any water. These palms can tolerate severe sun, low humidity and even frost, thanks to their deep root systems and tough, waxy fronds.

How to plant and grow palm trees

Soil

Palms prefer a moist, humus-rich but well-drained soil, but will grow in most garden soils with the addition of compost and organic matter. A soil pH between 6 and 7 is suitable for most palm species. 

Potting mix

When potting up palms into pots and containers indoors, always use a premium standard potting mix. Keep well-watered during spring and summer, allowing the potting mix or soil to dry out between each watering. 

Caring for palm trees

Use a controlled-release fertiliser in spring for palms planted in the ground or for those potted up indoors. Additional applications of fertiliser for trees and shrubs in summer and autumn will encourage strong growth.

How and when to prune palm trees

 

  1. Remove dead or untidy palm fronds by removing them close to the stem.
  2. Larger palms may require long-handled loppers to reach the fronds.
  3. Always be aware of overhead wires, and be careful when using ladders, as the trunks are very slippery and difficult to safely attach onto.
  4. Use a professional tree surgeon wherever possible for tall palms.
  5. Do not prune the top off solitary trunked palms, as you will kill them. Single-trunked palms are monocarpic, and will not regrow like most other trees, so be cautious when pruning to avoid damaging the only growing point and trunk. Multi-trunked and suckering palms will usually reshoot if one of the trunks is damaged.

 

Diseases and pests

The most common occurrence or problem with palms are scale, mealy bug, mites and the palm dart caterpillar.  If the foliage is only partially affected, it is often easier to remove just the damaged frond. Severe infestations can be controlled with horticultural and plant-based oils or an insecticide.

Fungal disease and cold conditions may cause brown spotting or lesions. Remove the affected foliage, spray with a fungicide and improve the growing conditions to remedy the problem. Dry air may cause brown tips on the leaf edges. To increase humidity, mist the leaves regularly with water from a hose or spray bottle. Palms can suffer nutrient deficiencies in iron, manganese and zinc when grown in alkaline soils. Use moss peat, compost, pine bark and either granulated or liquid sulphur to lower the soil pH.

Palm tree varieties to try at home

Palm treess make a great addition to your garden, providing an instant tropical effect. They also make long-lasting and easy-care indoor plants. So let’s look at some of the best ones to choose:

Archontophoenix: A. alexandre, Alexander palm to 18m; A. cunninghamiana, Bangalow palm to 18m. Solitary-trunked, fast-growing palms for warm temperate to tropical climates.

Bismarckia: B.nobilis, the unusual Bismarck palm, which features huge blue-grey fan shaped leaves. Grows up to 60m tall in the wild. Tropical and warm temperate climates.

Chamaedorea: C. seifrizii, a multi-trunked palm for brightly lit situations, growing around 2–3m tall; C. elegans, the popular parlour palm, a small palm for shade or growing indoors.

Cocos: C. nucifera, the single-trunked coconut palm with a number of different growth forms including dwarf varieties, growing up to 30m high. Suited to warm tropical climates only.

Dypsis: D. lutescens, the golden cane palm, a slender multi-trunked palm with yellow-green trunks and leaf stems. Can be grown indoors in a brightly lit spot.

Howea: H.forsteriana, the well-known and universally popular kentia palm. Grows up to 15m with a slim solitary trunk and dark green fronds. One of the best indoor palms for low-light situations.

Livistonia: L. australis, Australian fan palm that grows to 15m; L. chinensis, Chinese fan palm that grows to 12m. Solitary-trunked fan palms with fronds having distinct drooping tips.  Temperate to tropical climates.

Phoenix: P.dactyliferia, the tall, suckering date palm of the Middle East, grows to 24m; P.canariensis, the stout, solitary-trunked Canary Island date palm, grows to 18m. Suitable for warm temperate climates.

Rhapis: R. excelsa, the slow-growing lady palm, is a multi-trunked palm with deeply cut green leaves. Suitable for bright and low-light conditions, making a perfect indoor palm, growing up to 3m tall.

Trachycarpus: T.fortunei, the chusan or Chinese windmill palm, a single hairy-trunked palm with distinctive fan-shaped fronds in whorls. Extremely tolerant of cold, and suitable for growing in cooler climates.

Washingtonia: W. filifera, cotton palm, growing to 15m; W.robusta, skyduster, grows to 25m. Large, fast-growing drought-resistant fan palms with solitary trunks and spiky leaf bases. Temperate to tropical climates.

 

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