Palms and Their Imitators

Palms are long-lived, perennial plants which proliferate in the tropics. Often they are the dominant component of vegetation; ranging from the seashore to inland districts and into the high altitudes. The fruit and flowers of many palms are brightly colored to attract various birds and other animals to assist in dispersing the seed. In fact, the avian connection with palms goes back to the late Cretaceous period. The ancestors of today's birds helped disperse palm pollen throughout the world. Ancient samples have even been recovered from sediments outside of London.

Today, it's estimated there are approximately 2600 species of palm trees. They are woody monocotyledons in the family Palmae with a characteristic appearance that enables most people to recognize them. However; unrelated plants with a similar general appearance such as Cycads, Cordylines, Cyclanths, and Pandans are often mistakenly thought of as palms as well. Although these imitators aren't actually palms, they generally have similar care requirements which makes them ideal candidates to join the palm as outstanding foliage for aviaries and bird rooms.               


Temperature range: Subtropical and tropical species should be maintained ideally between 62 F to 88 F, with the lower temperature being the nightime reading. Temperate species can tolerate lower temperatures but generally will not survive extended freezing periods.

Humidity: Indoor atmospheres are generally of low humidity and can tend to fluctuate with the addition of heating or air conditioning. Palms generally dislike low humidities. They will often lose their luster and appear dull. In addition, they become prone to pests such as spider mites and mealy bugs. The answer is to change the atmosphere around the plant. This does not mean increased watering. Many an indoor palm has been killed by over-watering because its leaves are dry. Increase the humidity by thoroughly misting the plant on both sides of its leaves once or twice daily. Another technique that may be used is to stand the pot in a large saucer of wet, evaporative material such as scoria.

Watering: Palms growing in bright light and higher temperatures will need more frequent watering. As a general rule of thumb, water your plant when the top 1" of soil becomes dried out. All watering should be heavy and thorough. You should water from the top and continue until water is draining out of the bottom. You may allow the plant to stand in this water for several hours and then dump off any remaining water. It should not be allowed to stand in water overnight. Always use fresh water, never any that has become stagnant.      

Light: Many palms thrive in moderate to bright light. However; there are some which occupy an understory niche in nature and do better in a low light situation. If in doubt, a Southern exposure is a safe choice. If the lighting and humidity are correct, your palm foliage should appear lush.

Fertilizers: These should be applied in small amounts at regular intervals and the soil mixture should be watered thoroughly after the application. I recommend using organic or slow-release fertilizers to avoid "burning" the roots. Foliar feeding as a general rule is a much less satisfactory method for palms and their imitators than applications to the root system.

Recuperation: Indoor plants appreciate a "freshen-up" at intervals. This can consist of simply setting them outside during warm temperature and hosing off the dust on the leaves. They should be set in a shady place out of the wind. This will help reduce pest build-up of species such as spider mites which thrive in hot, dry conditions.