You’ll be seeing it everywhere this summer: people’s backyards, sidewalk cafés, and, especially, box stores. It’s a potted palm with a fairly thick base and upright, arching, pinnate fronds made up of lots of narrow leaflets, probably about 3 to 6 feet (1 to 1.8 m) or so in height when you buy it: the majesty palm or majestic palm (Ravenea rivularis).
If it’s so popular in summer gardens, it’s not that people like it better than other palms, but because it’s dirt cheap. Nursery growers in the South can produce it rapidly, growing it from seed much faster then other palms. That means they can sell it cheaply and you can buy it at a very reasonable price. Adding it to your yard, balcony or deck automatically gives a feeling of tropical exuberance and indeed, the majesty palm (I have no idea where that name comes from) is being sold as the ideal palm for summer decoration.
Of course, summer eventually ends and almost any other palm you can buy would then make a great houseplant. Just bring it indoors, give it decent light, water it well, offer it a monthly shower to control spider mites and it should do well.
The easiest way for most people to grow a majesty palm, though, is as an annual. It makes a horrible houseplant, tending to slowly die over the winter due to indoor conditions (dry air, hot temperatures, and poor light notably) rather than put on any significant growth. Buy it for summer decoration, then chop it up and compost it in the fall: honestly, that’s the way to go!
True enough, planted outdoors in tropical and subtropical climates (zones 9b-12), it will live for years, grow a thick, almost bottlelike trunk (actually called a stipe) and reach for the sky. (It will need a misting system in drier climates). In its native Madagascar, where it is threatened with extinction, it can reach nearly 100 feet (30 m) in height, but it rarely reaches more than 40 feet (12 m) in culture.
But most people’s homes are nothing like South Florida and therefore it almost never survives the winter when brought indoors. You can try it if you want (hint: give it intense artificial light, moderate temperatures, and run the humidifier full blast), but you’ll probably come to the same conclusion as thousands of other disappointed gardeners: it really is best treated as an annual.
Outdoor Care in the North
Your potted majesty palm will not be hard to maintain over the summer. Stick it pretty much anywhere and water it well, never letting it dry out. You can even leave its pot soaking in a tray of water (in the wild, this palm grows right along river edges, with some of its roots dipping in water). Yes, it does prefer moderate to full sun, but you’re not expecting it to actually grow during the summer, just to stay alive, so you can maintain it even in deep shade. Do fertilize it occasionally or its fronds will yellow. If any fronds or leaflets are damaged, just cut them off.
It will hold on right through the summer, even taking a few light frosts as fall arrives. Then take the advice of a laidback gardener and just compost it!