Growing tropical palms indoors

Growing tropical palms indoors
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Think about a dream holiday in tropics. Got it? I bet that the picture in your mind right now includes palm trees somewhere – boarding a white sand beach or around a luxurious pool. They are there. Tall and slender, crowned by majestic greenery high above your head. The image of tropical palms is imprinted in our brains intimately close to feelings of well-being, relaxation, holidays, happiness. I’m sure this dreamy connection has been one of main reasons to grow palm trees inside of our houses since Victorian times.

Some palm species have proven to be very law maintenance and have been popular indoors plants for centuries: Howea, Rhapis, Chamaedorea

If you Google for indoor palms you will probably end up with advise to get one of those. They can adapt to very low light, will stand rather long time if one forgets to water them and they don’t mind dry air in our houses. They are lovely palms and those qualities are great for someone who never been suspected in having green fingers. The only “but” here is when you recall that picture I asked you to imagine in the beginning, those palms are far from your imagined long trunk beauties.

If you read this blog, your fingers probably have some shade of green and you are not one of those persons who buys plants just to watch them die. I guess you can handle a watering can. If you do, the range of available palm species to grow in your home are so much larger than those easy going guys above. Water and humidity are the most important requirements to be able to grow real tropical palms indoors. The ones with a trunk, crownshaft and large leaves – the iconic looking palms, which make you dream away to Caribbean beaches.

watersprayAlmost all palms, even the most sun loving ones have a tremendous possibility to adopt to low light. Near a south or even east/west facing window will be a good place for your own piece of tropics. Humidity however you need to provide them with. Fortunately, that is very easily done. The secret is spelled water spray bottle. Twice or even once a day spraying leaves will keep most tropical palms growing happy. Personally I do it once a day and take it as a relaxing going-to-bed routine.

I’ve heard people saying that spraying will only rise the humidity for a very short time and will in no way affect the plant health. That is correct that the humidity rise will be very local and short term. However tropical plants are used to absorb water readily available in hot and humid air in their native environments even through the foliage. My theory, confirmed only by my practise is that it is important to help plants growing in dry indoors air to keep this function working. That is how spraying is beneficial.

One problem could be if your water contains a lot of salts, which would build up on the foliage when spraying often. Look into your water cooker, if it has a lot of white staff deposited inside, then your water is too hard and you should find a way to soften it.

Another affordable solution to rise the humidity for your plants is air humidifiers readily available in local home appliances’ shops and on-line. That would be beneficial both for the plants, your respiratory ways and your furniture.

Adonidia merrillii

Adonidia merrillii (Manila palm or Christmas palm) is probably the most elegant palm well suited for indoors. Already as young as just a couple of years it has a pronounced trunk, crowned by feather shaped, inclined leaves, forming that classical palm look. Photo top/left Adonidia merrillii in Thailand by Geoff Stein. Two other photos by author.

So, how do you start? I would say, let’s start from a seed. This is how any solitary trunk palm starts.

To grow your own palm tree from a seed can be a fun family project or your personal enjoyment. Germinating fresh (stressing fresh) seeds of most palms is rather easy. That is also most often the only option in temperate climate countries where tropical palms are an oddity in shops and nurseries. Ordering seeds on-line one can do in, well almost, any country.

To succeed with seeds, you need to follow a few points:

  • Remove all the flesh and clean the hard shell underneath it thoroughly. The fleshy part is for animals to eat the seed and to care it away for territorial expansion. You already done that. Hopefully without eating the seed. If left on, the fruit flesh will be a growing ground for fungi and you don’t want that.
  • Soak the cleaned seeds for 2-3 days in cooked water cooled down to slightly above room temperature. Change the water every day.
Wodyetia bifurcata

Wodyetia bifurcata or fox tail palm is extremely popular due to its unusual plumose leaves resembling a fox tail. Photo on the right Kampong Botanic Garden, in Coconut Grove (south of Miami), former estate of David Fairchild. Photo by Leu Gardens Botanist Eric S. Photos to the left by author. Two years old seedling growing indoors from seeds collected in December 2014 in Huahin, Thailand. As young they have a trunk, but the distinctive plumose appearance is coming with maturity.

  • After soaking, take a robust needle or a small screwdriver or a nail file and saw or drill through the hard shell until you reach the white embryo. Try not to damage its flesh. If you do, however, it probably still will be ok. That is called scarification and is done to facilitate the humidity getting down and starting the embryo. The hard shell around it is there to protect from animals’ digestive system. Once again, that is not needed with your seeds and the shell can be considered just an obstacle. Scarification will accelerate germination most considerably.
  • Half fill a plastic box, for instance an ice cream container, with perlite or coir or vermiculite. Push the seeds half way down and thoroughly mist the box without flooding the seeds. If you are using coir it’s better to presoak it. Cover it with a lid or plastic wrap.
  • Light is not needed when germinating, but the heat is crucial. Place the box somewhere where it will be kept warm from underside at temperature of about 30°C or 86-90°F. Ideal would be a heat pad, but make sure it is the one, which is safe to keep on 24/7 or 12-16 hrs a day. You can also look around in your house to find some feature up for the job. It can be a temperature regulated heating element or underfloor heating. In our home we got upper cabinets in kitchen and bathroom with small fluorescent tubes installed under it. Inside the cabinet right above the tube it’s warm when the light is on. So I put my seed boxes there and turn the light on in the morning and off by night. It worked for all tropical plants’ seeds I germinated.
  • Lift the lid sometimes to spray more water if needed and of course to check on your so anticipated results.
Areca catechu dwarf

Areca catechu dwarf is a dwarf variety of well-known betelnut palm. As dwarf it is very attractive due its compact crown on a sturdy trunk. It is disputed whether all seedlings inherit the dwarfism or not, so it is better to buy a young specimen, which is a true dwarf, instead of germinating seeds. You can order one here. Photo by author of a true dwarf seedling of about two years age growing indoors.

It can take from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, depending on specie, before the seeds start to grow. When the main root has grown 3-4 cm (1-1.5”) you can lift it over to an individual pot. Don’t start with a too big pot. Make your research, read some botanical descriptions of your palm. If it has a taproot, you’ll need a pot, which is higher, rather than wider. Those with branching roots will be fine in a regular shaped pot.

Make your own potting mix by adding 20-30% perlite (or coir, or vermiculite) to regular potting soil. No need for any fancy mixes. Perlite will make the soil lighter so it doesn’t suffocate the roots, while it will also retain right amount of water available to the roots for longer time. Do not forget adding a good drainage layer at the bottom of the pot. Very few palm species can tolerate wet feet.

I normally plant germinated seedlings in 10-12cm (4-4.5”) pots and upgrade them every year first 3-4 years to a pot with doubled volume. When transplanting, preferably in spring, be careful with the roots as they are very sensitive to the stress. Rather keep the old soil on the roots just adding up new to fill out the pot.

Led lamp 36WObviously you want to place your tropical plant in the lightest possible location. Like I already said it will, however, adapt to any available light so far it is by window, where it will get at least a couple of hours of sun light. If your winters are as dark as they are in Stockholm (our shortest day in December is just 6 hours between dawn and sunset) some artificial light would be helpful. A 36W LED lamp won’t ruin you on electricity bill and can be bought for under 30USD.

More on my light setup in this video post. There are even links to order lamps there.

Make sure your warm loving palm is not standing in cold draft by winter. Don’t get tempted to move it out by summer to get it more sun. Sudden increase of sun light will severally and very quickly burn unused leaves. Big temperature shifts day and night, which is normal in temperate climates is more than those palms are able to deal with. It will do best if you just find it a permanent place to stand all year round.

Hyophorbe lagenicaulis

Hyophorbe lagenicaulis, common name, bottle palm, quite obviously why. Photos by author. Bigger photo is from a resort in Vietnam. Upper left corner two about one year old seedlings from seeds collected in Vietnam.


Hedyscepe canterburyana

Hedyscepe canterburyana or Umbrella palm got its common name due to the tight and robust crown of elegant slightly arching leaves. Endemic to Lord Howe Island, the same island as the ubiquitous Howea forsteriana (Kentia palm) it can be grown indoors as easy. Photo by Troy Donovan in his garden in Old Beach, Tasmania.

Water regularly, when the top soil is starting to get dry. Make sure you water through the whole pot, but not so that it stands in water. Stop when you see water coming out into the pot tray. Many tropical palms can stand a couple of weeks without watering or misting the leaves. So you can leave them and go to real tropics for a vacation and for new seeds. When you are home however try to make it into the routine to water and mist.

Another piece of advise: I like to cover my pots with a 2-3cm (1”) layer of sandbox sand for several reasons: when the sand is dry, i.e. time to water; it looks better and kind of belongs to tropics; it also makes it difficult for insects to dwell in your soil. Does having fruit flies sound familiar, when you plant into new soil? With sand on top you won’t get them.

And as for insects, unfortunately, it is more or less guaranteed in dry indoors air to get spider mites on your tropical plants. Tiny creeps, crawling on leaves, building small webs and sucking plant’s juices. If left unattended they will destroy all your efforts. Good preventing strategy is water spraying the foliage often. They don’t like to get wet. If you still one day see them (or rather their webs), try to wash them off. If your palm is yet of smaller model, care it to the bathroom and rinse it off. Check all other plants as well. With bigger palms you can sweep leaflets with cotton pads, using a very weak solution of liquid soap. The ultimate solution to spider mites I prefer, is buying and releasing predatory mites Phytoseiulus persimilis. They are about the same size as their pray and are only feeding on spider mites. Unlike the other control methods, the predatory mites will hunt down all bad guys, their larvae and eggs anywhere on the plants, soil and pots. When eventually out of food, they will vanish.

And for the last, a few words about feeding your nurslings. Palms don’t require much fertilizer. Potted palms even less so. Any palm nutrition you will find, use it by diluting its label recommended concentration two-three times and give it every second month or even more seldom winter time. Palm roots are very sensitive and easily burned by too high fertilizer concentration. You would rather want to underfeed, than overfeed.

Some other tropical palms you might consider for your tropics at home:

 

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