Bring the tropics indoors with palms

Palm trees are a member of the grass family.

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A Neantha Bella palm warms up a home with its presence.
John Zvirovksi / The Jamestown Sun
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John Zvirovski, Jamestown Sun garden editor
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

A new year has begun and soon the holiday decorations will be taken down only to expose the neglected houseplants that were mistakenly concealed. It may not happen in your household, but in mine, there is always so much going on during the holiday season that my houseplants are the items that suffer the most. It’s not because I don’t like them, it has more to do with the time that passes without me realizing it. At times it seems I have just watered them within the past week when the reality is that it probably has been more like a month. Houseplants don’t really care for that kind of treatment.

We use them for washing cars, floors, kitchens, bathrooms and even our bodies.

There are many common houseplants available to us in the northern part of the country. Some are more difficult to grow than others, but with the proper care, they can all survive well. Of all the houseplants, palm plants are one of the most common. They are available at any nursery or store that handles plants. Some are common varieties while others are completely foreign to most growers.

Palm trees are a member of the grass family. They have a central trunk with branchless growing tips and a fibrous root system, which does not grow deep or spread very far. However, it is this network of fibrous roots that can uphold the small upper canopy during windy conditions. Palms will grow singly or in clumps depending on the variety. It is this growth habit that causes propagation by tip cutting or air layering to be unsuccessful. Once the end of a shoot has been cut off, the stem will not create another sprout and will die.
In most cases, palms are either propagated by seed or by division. Palm species such as bamboo send up numerous suckers from the base of the plant as it ages. These suckers can be pulled apart and planted in separate containers to form new plants.

Since palms are from the tropics, they require warm temperatures and relatively high humidity for optimum growth. However, there are certain varieties that can handle cooler temperatures and lower light conditions. When growing indoors, it is imperative to give your palm tree a very bright location. Areas that have skylights or large windows are best for them. Most thin-leafed varieties require bright filtered light but do not like direct sunlight as this can burn the leaves.
Most palm trees also like to be watered as soon as the top half-inch of soil has dried but they never like to remain in soil that becomes waterlogged and mucky, as this will cause root and fungal rot. The best thing for a palm is to set its container on a layer of rocks in a deep tray. Any excess water will run from the container into the rocks and away from the roots. As this water evaporates from the tray, it transpires through the leaves to create added humidity. Humidity is very important to palm trees, so a light misting of distilled water on the leaves helps keep away insect infestations and keeps the leaves from getting brown tips.


The main insects that bother the palm species are mealy bugs, which have the look of a sudsy, foamy glob on the undersides of the leaves. Spider mites are very small and have brown or red coloring. Usually, the appearance of fine webs near the center of the leaves or the yellow mottling of the leaflets is the first sign of a problem. The third insect that can be a pest is hard-shelled scales, which cling to the undersides of the leaves and on the stems. These are small green, brown or black oval bodies that are very difficult to get rid of due to their hard shell coating. The best insecticide for all of these insects is a mild insecticidal soap. Periodic misting along with higher air humidity will also help keep an insect infestation in check.

Some of the most common palms available in our area are Areca palm, with its long and flowing fronds, Bamboo palm, with its bamboo stems and smaller leaves, and Parlor palm, which is very resilient and probably the most common of the selections. All of these palms prefer nighttime temperatures of around 65 degrees and daytime temperatures of about 80 degrees.

For those with cooler household temperatures, the selection of fan palms may be a better option. Items such as European fan palm, Lady palm and Chinese fan palm all enjoy nighttime temperatures of 55 degrees and daytime temperatures of 70 degrees.

These varieties cannot tolerate cold drafts or blasts of air from an open window or door. Repeated effects of this type of exposure will cause yellowing leaves, brown edges or complete loss of foliage due to the temperature shock. It is also wise to keep your trees away from a drying heat register, which can also rob this plant of vital moisture within the leaves.

With the proper care and a little attention, you can bring the tropical setting into the confines of your own home. If you have a greenhouse, then you will have the ideal conditions not to just grow smaller varieties, but some of the taller selections also with hardly any attention at all.

Continue to enjoy the cultivation of plants within the home as the winter season prepares our outdoor plants for a quickly approaching spring season. Devote some time to your houseplants now, because soon we will be back outdoors taking care of all the activities of spring again.

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