The Little Palm Tree that Could

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Pot of young palm seedlings.

Many years ago (I would have been about 12 years old), I bought a pot of tiny palm trees to decorate a vivarium I was making. I separated the little plants to create a forest effect, added some more plants, and released two so-called chameleons (actually, green anoles, but they were sold under the name chameleons at the time) into this miniature landscape. The chameleons did not live long, but some of the plants did. In fact, they long outlived my interest in vivariums.

I eventually potted up one of the tiny palms into its own pot… and it followed me over the next 15 years.

When I moved away from home to study, my parents brought it with them on their first trip to visit me. By then, it was a more substantial houseplant, in an 8-inch (20 cm) pot. Every time I moved, which became nearly annually when I was a student and then a young husband, it followed me. And it continued to grow, eventually reaching over 6 feet (1,8 m) tall. And it was now blooming regularly too.

After all that time without a mishap (even my cats never seemed to chew on it, although it’s not toxic), its demise came about quite suddenly.

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I have no photo of my palm (I had no camera at the time), but it looked much like this one, except on top of a 5 ft/1,5 m bare green stem.

With a need to change that spare room from a plant nursery to a baby nursery, I was under pressure to reduce my plant collection, so gave it to a friend who had long admired it. I figured if I could keep it going for 15 years, it had to be one tough plant, right? Well, not necessarily.

Within two months, my friend informed me that it was looking suspiciously brown. Upon investigation, it turned out to be in fact dead, completely dehydrated. I don’t think my friend quite understood that the least you need to do for a houseplant is to water it!

I’ve lost lots of plants over the years, yet losing that palm still bothers me. I remember it well.

The Tiny But Tough Parlor Palm

When I first bought that pot of seedlings as a kid, I had no idea what kind of plant it was, just that it was a “palm tree” (actually, this species never makes it to “tree” height). Later I learned it was a so-called parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans, still sometimes sold under a truly ancient botanical name that should have died out generations ago, Neanthe bella), a small palm from the jungles of Southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. It has been grown as a houseplant since Victorian times.

It’s a single-stemmed palm, never producing offsets, but is inevitably sold in clumps, the result of sowing several to many seeds in the same pot. Its growth is slow but steady and it can eventually reach ceiling height.

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The closely spaced growth rings and beginnings of aerial roots on a green stem help identify the parlor palm.

Although often stemless at purchase time, as it grows and older fronds die and are removed, it reveals a green stem heavily marked with closely spaced growth rings and beginnings of aerial roots. The pinnate fronds of young plants bear only a few leaflets, but mature leaves may have up to 40 linear ones. The featherlike arching fronds are dark green in color: any yellowing is a sign of trouble!

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The flowers are so-so… but do indicate your plant is happy.

This is one of the rare palms that readily blooms indoors, but the branching stems of tiny yellow blossoms are more curious than attractive. Since it’s dioecious (male and female flowers appear on separate plants) and pollinating insects lack in indoor environments, seed is almost never produced.

One Tough Cookie

The parlor palm really does need little care beyond watering it and removing older, yellowing fronds.

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The parlor palm will grow almost anywhere indoors.

It tolerates fairly low light and can therefore live well back from a window, although it prefers bright light with some sun. It will enjoy a summer outdoors in a fairly shady spot.

Water abundantly when the soil is dry to the touch. The frequency of watering will vary greatly according to conditions. Normal home temperatures are just fine, but it dislikes cold (temperatures below 50˚F/10˚C) and won’t tolerate lasting frost, limiting its outdoor use to zones 10 to 12.

It will show its resentment of dry air by brown leaf tips on older fronds, but they’re fairly discrete. I find clipping them off looks worse than leaving them alone. Ideally, you’d increase the humidity level (like most houseplants, it likes medium to high humidity) and avoid that problem altogether.

It’s a slow grower and there’s not much you can do to change that. It barely seems to react to fertilizer, but that doesn’t mean you should never “feed” it, especially when there are many plants growing in the same pot. An occasional application of slow-release fertilizer during its spring-to-summer growing season will do. Of course, you’ll need to repot mature plants every 2 or 3 years (repot young ones jammed into tiny pots annually) using ordinary potting soil and the input of fresh potting mix also helps supply any minerals that might have been lacking.

Yes, It Does Filter the Air

You may have heard of the parlor palm as one of the famous “NASA clean-air plants” that will miraculously filter the air in your home, removing pollutants and helping you live a longer and healthier life. And yes, it does indeed figure on the list. But all plants clean the air: it’s just what plants do. So you really don’t have to just choose specific ones. But if you want to grow a parlor palm for that purpose, that’s fine too.

You can read more on the subject in Houseplants that Clean the Air.

When It Gets Too Big

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Once it reaches the ceiling, you have little choice but to find a new home for your parlor palm.

Yes, the parlor palm is a slow-growing plant, but if it gets too big for your needs… tough noggies! Cutting it back will kill it, as it neither branches (few palms do) nor produces offsets from the base. You can however air layer the stem: it will root after several months and then the top part can be cut off and potted up. The bottom will not resprout, however, and will need to go into the compost.

Note that most sources will tell you can’t air layer a palm… and they’re essentially right. Among palms, stem rooting is the exception rather than the rule and it’s only possible with very few species.

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Dividing a dense clump. Photo: S. Hemmer

The average houseplant grower won’t be multiplying this plant either, unless you order seed by mail. The best you can do is to divide pots with multiple plants when they are young. Older plants tend to react badly to such a degree of root disturbance, however, so if ever you judge your pot is too crowded, you’d do better to selectively eliminate a few stems to leave room for the others rather than divide them up. Just cut the extras off at the base.

Problems

As mentioned, dry air can lead to brown leaf tips… but also spider mites. That said, this is one of the “better palms” when to comes to those annoying 8-legged creatures. Still, you may still need to spray with insecticidal soap to control them. And up the humidity to discourage them.

If left in the same pot too long, the soil may become excessively rich in mineral salts, leading to yellowing or even serious die-back. If so, repot without delay into fresh soil.


There you go: a houseplant just about anyone can grow… except my friend, who, 30 years later, still hasn’t learned they all need to be watered.20170109AA.jpg

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