Palms in the Parlor
Of all the members of the plant kingdom suitable for use as houseplants, none evoke a feeling of the tropics like the palms. With their large, architectural leaves and strong outlines, palms can help create an indoor Garden of Eden wherever you live.
During the Victorian Era, indoor palms were all the rage in England, the U.S., and other countries. No house was complete without at least one kentia palm, Howea forsteriana. Since then the popularity of palms has waxed and waned—and waxed again; today it is rare to enter a restaurant or shopping mall without seeing at least a few palms, even if they're not always tastefully arranged. Fortunately, there is a wide selection of palms that can be grown successfully indoors.
With their bold forms, palms add an architectural framework to the apartment conservatory. Above: Dypsis lutescens, butterfly palm.
Apartments and houses can be very inhospitable environments to most plants. Many people prefer a very dry indoor climate—with winter humidity levels that are lower than those of the Sahara Desert! To the degree that you can, try to make your home friendly to palms. In general, this means keeping things as bright and moist as you can.
If you have no real desire to recreate a tropical rainforest in your apartment, you're still in luck. Many of the palms suitable as houseplants are native to tropical understory environments, where there is keen competition for light and water. So they are quite at home in the extreme conditions of a house or apartment.
How much light you need to provide for your palms depends on the species. South- or east-facing windows are ideal. Light-loving species such as European fan palm, Chamaerops humilis, and Bismarck palm, Bismarckia nobilis, should be placed close to the windows. Those requiring less light, such as the many parlor palms, Chamaedorea species, and lady palms, Rhapis species, prefer broken or filtered light, but will tolerate indirect light. And the huge popularity of the kentia palm in the 19th century was due partially to its ability to grow in practically no light at all. If you live on the dim north side of your building and want to grow sun-loving palms, you will need to provide artificial light.
Most palms need abundant water but only a few tolerate soggy soil. Treat palms as you would other houseplants, watering them evenly and only when the soil is dry to a depth of one inch. If you are able to take your palms outdoors for the summer, you will need to water more frequently, depending on conditions.
Palms appreciate a good-quality potting mix. Look for a mix that provides good drainage. Palms do not mind being root-bound and can be kept in the same container for several years. When repotting, however, take care not to injure or cut the roots. What container to use depends greatly on your style of decorating, but it's often best to keep the palm in a plastic container and place this inside the decorative container of choice, as most do not allow for drainage.
Palms require only light fertilizing indoors. The best method is a timed-release fertilizer mixed with the potting soil, but you can use diluted liquid fertilizers at one-third the recommended rate during the growing season.
Remember that palms are basically unprunable and really just want to do one thing: grow up. It's difficult to shape a palm as you would boxwood, and pruning lower leaves will not make the plant grow faster. Trim off dead leaves only when they are brown and crispy.
Hamaedorea elegans, parlor palm.
Now for the good news: most palms are practically pest-free in an indoor environment. The most crucial period comes when you bring your new palm home, because it may have pests that can infect your other plants. A good preventive treatment is to wash the leaves and stems with soapy water as soon as you bring the palm home. And you may want to treat a new palm as you would a new pet, keeping it away from the others for a while. After the quarantine period, you can move the palm into the general population.
Probably the most serious indoor pests are scale insects and spider mites. Scale insects are easy to control with a soapy cloth or, failing that, a light oil spray. Remember that scale insects will remain on the plant after they die, so you will have to rub them off for aesthetic reasons. Spider mites are best controlled through preventive maintenance, as they prey on under-fertilized, dry, stressed plants. To get rid of an existing infestation, use an oil spray. It's usually best to treat the palm again two or three weeks later to kill all larvae that have matured. If you take your palms outdoors during the warmer months, remember to allow them to harden off to the stronger light, and just as importantly, check for pests when you bring them back in. You may live in a high-rise building in the middle of a city, but spider mites will still know your address.
Homescaping With Palms
Probably the single most important contribution palms make to the apartment conservatory is architectural. A well-placed palm can make a small room seem larger and a large one more intimate. They also provide the anchoring structure for softer indoor plants such as crotons, dieffenbachias, and sanchezias. The large palm leaves also contrast well with smaller, finer-textured plants.
Palms are grouped into two basic categories based on their leaf structures. Palm leaves come in two basic shapes: fans (palmate) and feathers (pinnate). Each type provides its own kind of architecture. (See below for the best palmate and pinnate specimens to grow indoors.)
Palms can complement any style of indoor gardening. Even if your taste doesn't run to the tropical and you prefer the more meditative effect of a Japanese garden or the classic lines of the Mediterranean, palms still are essential. It would be rare to find a temple garden in Japan without a windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), and the French Riviera is thick with palms.
Perhaps the most important factor in the indoor cultivation of palms is selection of the right variety. Many retail outlets choose palms not for their adaptability to an indoor environment but because they are inexpensive to grow and sell. These throwaway plants look good for a season or two but soon decline.
Knowledge is perhaps the best ally you can have. When you buy a palm for your indoor conservatory, you should know the species: since each species of palm differs slightly in its cultural requirements, you really can't take care of it until you know what it is. If the plant is not labeled properly (or at all), don't buy it.
With a minimum of effort, you can create a miniature tropical paradise that can allow you to escape from the pressures of the city and even feel as though you are in a garden rather than your living room. After all, that's the idea.