Grow Tropical Palms at Home

Learn how to grow tropical palms inside your home including: temperature, light, watering, feeding, transplants, grooming and propagation.

| November/December 1983

You'll bring a bit of the tropics right into your own home...

The mention of palms usually conjures up images of romantic South Sea Islands with exotic fruits, dazzling white sand beaches, crystal clear lagoons, and bronzed, flower decked dancers swaying against an ocean-blue sky. Unfortunately, many of us will never visit such fabled lands, but there's no reason why we can't bring those faraway isles to our own hearths and homes . . . by growing some tropical palms!

This elegant greenery — related to grasses and bamboo — is remarkably tolerant of neglect (in fact, it'll almost take care of itself) and relatively resistant to diseases and insects. Why, these hearty perennials are actually noted for their tolerance of "atrocities" such as low light levels, ,root crowded containers, infrequent watering, and air-conditioning.

What's more, few plant species in history have enjoyed the stature that palms have earned: Since early Egyptian and Babylonian cultures, they have been honored as principes, the "princes of plants". But their most valuable attribute — in the eyes of the "informed" gardener — may well be their wonderful versatility. With 210 genera and 2,780 species, the Palmae family (also known as Arecaceae) offers varieties native to warm and temperate climates alike. 'True, the majority come from Southeast Asia and tropical America, where they live — as the Arabs say — "with their feet in the water and their heads on fire". Others, though, take root as far north as Virginia and as far south as central Chile. 

Feathers and Fans

As you might expect, the very fact that they have such diversified habitats makes generalizing about palms rather difficult. Fortunately, however, a basic botanical division of the plants into "feather" and "fan" types — based on their leaf structure — does provide a useful framework for exploring these exotics.

By and large, the most popular (and congenial) decorative palms are the feather types. These include the species of Chamaedorea, Chrysalidocarpus, Howea, and Phoenix. All have pinnate fronds that resemble large feathers or fingers (see Fig. 1 in Image Gallery). In fact, palms derive their name from this likeness to the human hand.

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