Mail Order Experiences with Palms and CycadsBy Geoff Stein (palmbob)
January 25, 2009
Though I much prefer to obtain all my plants in person, many plants are simply unavailable locally, particularly if you like weird, rare things as I do; or they are way too costly. And there is something akin to getting a Christmas present that is so exciting about getting plants by mail. You never know what they will look like until you open the package. This can be both good and bad. But it still adds sufficient anticipation and excitement that is can become an addiction, even.
I have ordered a significant number of palms, cycads and succulents by mail, but I have very little experience ordering the more common things many other gardeners order. If you peruse the Garden Watchdog pages and scan over the vendors that sell palms, cycads and succulents, you will see that for the most part, they all have quite favorable ratings. I think this is because most of them are specialized nurseries that don't deal with massive quantities of bulk-ordered plants, and they care about each plant and customer. At least that is my theory. Over the years I have ordered hundreds of palms and cycads. Most of my experiences were positive, despite the fact many of those plants died a long time ago. That was not the fault of the company, but nearly always my fault. This article will summarize a few of my experiences and go over some precautions you should take when ordering palms and cycads by mail.
Palms. There are three basic ways palms can be mailed: as a seed, potted or bare root. I prefer the latter as it is cheap, and the hassles of germination are taken care of. However there are certainly many advantages to getting palms as seeds or potted plants as well.
Fresh Jubaea seeds (not mail order; I picked them myself and still had a poor germination rate.)
When you order seeds, try to find out who's collecting the seeds, or how they are being identified. For example, I have ordered seeds that have been collected in Madagascar (an amazing island full of incredibly beautiful, rare and nearly extinct palms) and have been very disappointed in what actually grew from many of those seeds. Many palms from exotic places are given locality names, not their true names (though many Madagascan palms still have no true names) and these plants can be all sorts of unexpected species--often the same species--and very common plants you really didn't want in the first place. For example, I have ordered many palm seeds that have ended up being Dypsis lutescens, a very common palm you can get just about anywhere, but they were listed under many much more exotic monikers that had me drooling in anticipation for years until the shock finally hit me that I had a "junk" palm. So many seeds look alike that it is literally impossible to know for sure what trees they really came from. Reputable dealers should at least feign concern once they are told of these ‘errors', but in most cases they have been duped, too, and chances are you will have no recourse for compensation. Live and learn.
These are examples of palms I have in my yard I ordered from seed. Dypsis leptocheilos is a dependable germinator and not too slow (though way faster in a humid, warm climate); Second photo is of one of my many Livistona saribus I grew from shipped seed... this one was really easy to germinate and now I have too many palms! The last photo shows a group of Coccothrinax seedlings (Coccothrinax 'azul')... these two leaf blades of grass are nearly 8 years old in this photo- definitely NOT good candidates to grow from seed in my climate... better to have someone else grow these and get them older.
Also, seed viability is impossible to guarantee, and there is no way to know how old the seeds are or how they have been taken care of before they were finally sent to you. I have complained in the past my seeds were all ‘bad', but it's easy for a seller to turn the blame back on you as there are just too many variables that can go wrong at your end to explain why a seed did not germinate (e.g., you kept it too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, too deep in the soil, you didn't keep it sterile enough, etc.). And these dealers don't often know themselves how the seed was handled before they got them. And since I no longer have a greenhouse, and I am getting too old to try to grow palms from seed, I just don't get seeds anymore.
Attalea cohune from seed I grew 8 years ago; Pseudophoenix lindeniana from seed. This is normally a hard one to germinate, but I got exceptionally good seed and had nearly 100% germination.
But seedlings are not always a sure thing either, for several reasons. Mail ordered seedlings are often amazingly and disappointingly dinky; some are just barely a germinated bit of greenery. Misidentification is still quite possible and sadly common with some genera. I can't even begin to add up the number of seedlings I have ordered from Hawaii that have ended up being something completely different. However, this happens when you buy plants locally, too. Misidentification is always a risk, even if you are buying older palms unless you are schooled in palm identification. But the price is right and this misidentification is just part of the territory. Again, the seller is rarely the problem; rather, it is their seed source. I always tell the vendor about this ‘mix-up' but usually they have become aware of this long before I complain, since I live in a relatively cold climate where palms grow very slowly, and by the time my plants are old or large enough to identify, someone else (or the vendor themselves) have already figured this problem out. Still it is a constant frustration, one that causes me to resolve to no longer buy mail order palms. But then I forget and do it all over again. Admittedly I have a lot of good palms from my favorite mail order places.
Dinky seedlings from mail order sources: Chamaedorea plumosa, Trithrinax schizophylla and Butia archeri. The Chamaedorea was sort of a silly order as these are pretty easily obtained as a much larger plant and not too pricey, but it's doing OK. The Trithrinax and Butia were simply not available in any other form.
Examples of mail-ordered palms that are not necessarily what one expects: first one is a misidentified Chamaedorea that grew into this Chamaedorea seifrizei which is NOT what I ordered; Second photo is of a Dypsis called 'Round Seed'... not exactly a good name not does it really tell one anything about the plant; last photo is of a Pritchardia called ' Huelo blue'... what does that mean? I ordered it obviously so it was a marketing ploy that worked.. and if truly gets bluish leaves someday it might even be worth it.
Sending seedlings in a pot or at least with undisturbed roots in some soil has the advantage of less shock to the plant and perhaps a greater likelihood of smoothly transitioning into their new home in your yard. I have not found this to be the case, however. My climate is SO different from Hawaii, or of that of a greenhouse that if a seedling is going to croak, it croaks just as fast potted as it does bare root. However if you happen to live in a humid, warm climate already, this method would make a lot of sense. Just remember if you are ordering potted seedlings, you are paying for shipping the soil, which I find is a waste of money. Still, it might be worth it should you are ordering a plant with very sensitive roots.
order of palms from Floribunda in Hawaii (one of my favorite sources); shots of typical mail order plants potted up
Getting bare-root palms has worked out for me pretty well, at least for most of the palms I have ordered. There are a few that never survive this transition, but I have ordered some of these in soil and they died just as quickly. Oh well. For most palms, bare-root seems to work well and it certainly saves a lot on shipping, as you can mail fairly large seedlings with relatively little shipping cost, though you still pay for shipping a lot of moistened moss and/or newspaper (used for wrapping the roots). Palms seem to survive in this condition for a number of days as long as they stay in the box. I have had a few orders get ‘lost' temporarily and take a week to get to me, and still most plants seem hardly the worse for wear. You have to plant these shipped palms in pre-moistened soil, and keep watering the soil regularly to keep the roots from desiccating. Desiccation is certainly the number one reason for losing a bare-root palm; or even a seedling in soil for that matter. Some shippers apply an anti-transpirant on the leaves to keep the plants from losing moisture from that route. Whether or not this really helps is not clear, but it sure doesn't seem to hurt, so why not?
Examples of three species that are exceptionally good mail order plants: Actinokentia divariacata, Basselinia gracilis and Chamaedorea adcendens. All these travel exceptionally well. The main reason Actinokentia is such a good plant to get by mail order is it is SO SLOW here in California it would take decades to get a plant the size one can get cheaply by mail order. The Basselinias struggle a bit here, but look great and if kept protected, do OK.. they also are painfully slow in this climate. Chamaedorea adcendens is a good So California plant, but for $6 one can get a flowering adult plant mail order... worth it!
Four more excellent mail order species: Chamaedorea metallica and Lytocaryum weddelianum (left); Chuniophoenix sp. (middle) and Dypsis saint lucei (right)
And still three more good species: Allogoptera campestris (can't find otherwise), Guihaia argyrata (can get large ones), and Ravenea xerophila (another slug here that you can get much larger via mail order)
These are examples of three I probably wouldn't normally recommend, though all travel well: Coccothrinax species are SO slow and they are almost always dinky seedlings via mail-order... I recommend buying those locally after someone has grown one up for dozens of years; same of Dypsis decipiens (way too frustrating and slow as mail-order seedlings); and Serenoas can usually be found much larger and still faily inexepensive compared to the frustration of seeing a dinky plant stay dinky for many years
Mail order palms are certainly a good way of getting a lot of palms for very little money. You spend only a fraction of what the same palms sell for locally. However, I still much prefer to get most of my palms locally. First of all, I can see exactly what I'm getting. Secondly, I can often obtain a palm that is years beyond any I can get by mail order--sometimes this can save me decades, though the cost will obviously reflect this advantage. With some palms, it simply makes no sense for me to order them by mail as they are so small. There is little chance they will even survive and begin to look like palms, and not just blades of grass.
two palms in my yard best obtained directly and NOT from mail order- Bismarckias too common and cheap to get as a one leaf seedling mail-order- not worth it!; Syagrus schizophylla in second photo was a great find and getting one as a mail order palm would mean having a dinky seedling until I died of old age (very slow plant here in southern California)
But there are obvious advantages to getting palms by mail. Many palms just aren't available locally. And for some palm enthusiasts in remote areas where there are no local palm vendors, like in Sweden or Alaska (yes, there are active members of the palm society in both those areas) there simply is no other way to get palms.
Though I rarely do it, I got these two plants mail ordered as potted plants (soil and all)- the first was ordered for me as a gift (Chamaedorea elegans, which can be found anywyhere), and Rhapidophyllum hystrix, a good plant to get mail order as larger ones are expensive here in California. I don't know if there was any advantage to getting these plants this way, but both did great.
Some palm vendors only send palms if you order a minimum amount of plants. If you don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on an order, it is good to team up with a friend or two and do a group order.
Cycads. These plants are generally purchased mail order in the form of seeds or bare-root caudeces. There really is no reason to send a cycad in soil; it adds unnecessary shipping weight. Plants travel well by mail; although large plants can be damaged or rot, particularly if shipped long distances, and should be treated with antifungals.
In my experience, cycad seeds are fairly easy to grow, though some species are definitely harder to germinate than others. Only rarely are cycad seeds incorrectly identified, partly because there are far fewer species of cycads than palms. Also, cycad seeds are more expensive, so misidentification problems are far less-tolerated by buyers. Getting a cycad in the form of a seed is a pretty good way to grow one. If you have a greenhouse, a seed is a relatively safe bet, compared to a palm seed at least. And since many species of cycad are simply unavailable at larger sizes, getting them as seeds is often the only affordable way to obtain them. Still, there a hundreds of species not even available this way. Some cycads are simply unobtainable unless you have money and connections.
two Cycas species ordered with 'improper' or locality names- you never know what you're gonna get then. First one was called Cycas thaomavo, the other Cycas lopbura. No such things. Maybe in another 20 years once they mature I can figure out what they really are. Photo on right is supposedly Dioon holmgrenii... but probably not. Another hazard of ordering plants as seeds
2 seed orders that grew into the right things: Macrozamia polymorpha and Dioon meijae
I don't have much experience ordering cycad plants by mail, mostly because these are expensive plants and I like to see what I'm buying before I pay a lot of money for it. And the list of plants available by mail order is unimpressive, at least from ‘easy' sources. If you want to order plants from overseas, be prepared for a grueling amount of paperwork. But ordering plants from within the U.S. is pretty straight forward. I have ordered some species from Hawaii and these plants still have their leaves on; so far I have not had a single plant have a problem. Cycads travel very well in the mail, at least as seedlings.
Lepidozamia perroffskiana and Cycas curanii from Hawaii... both large and excellent plants
Zamia splendens and Bownia spectabilis from Hawaii
There is a mountain of paperwork that precedes the shipping of larger plants as nearly all cycads are protected and governed by CITES; there are limitations on size and species along with the dozens of hoops one must jump through to legally order these plants from overseas sources. Many vendors will only ship these plants locally as they must do a lot of hoop jumping to send such plants overseas. Also, dealing with such rare and high profile plants can attract unwanted government attention in the form of repeated inquiries and surprise inspections. Still, there is so much money to be made in the cycad trade that it is still worth all the hassles as long as you can keep out of trouble. Just be warned, if you are ordering cycads from overseas, even if all the paperwork is in order, expect trouble at the import station. If there is none, consider yourself lucky. If there is, it's business as usual. At least you won't be surprised.
I have only had a few plants delivered of any size and these were fairly easy to establish and re-root. However many species are not so easy and those that deal with these costlier, more sensitive species are very careful with them. They treat all incoming plants with anti-fungals as fungus is a cycad's primary enemy (along with excessive moisture). These caudeces are placed in perlite or pumice and left there for extended periods of time (years, sometimes) until either purchased or until a strong root system develops so they can safely be planted in soil. Unlike palms, newly shipped cycads should probably NOT be watered after getting them in planting medium, at least not right away. Overwatering a newly shipped cycad is a good way to rot it. Let it sit in perlite or pumice for several weeks (in a humid, protected atmosphere, though) before watering the roots. During this transition period, temperatures should be maintained as constant as possible (warm is good, but very hot and cold are bad). Cycads don't seem too stressed by soiless mediums and as long as they are not desiccated or infected in any other way, plants with a modest caudex can happily survive on just moisture and heat for years. I have made the mistake several times purchasing plants in perlite or pumice and hurriedly planted them in soil, only to watch them quickly rot. A successful cycad grower is a patient person.
one of my only larger plants mailed to me, a nice Encephalartos natalensis (was mailed in pumice just like in the photo- probably an unecessary shipping cost)
Timing your order. Unless you have a greenhouse, I don't recommend ordering plants in winter, and no palms in the heat of summer, at least in California. However, if you do have use of a greenhouse, winter ordering may work out great as palm availability lists are quickly followed by many people (mostly nurseries) ordering large amounts of palms, and the good stuff sells out quickly all year long, except in winters. Plants are already going through a large shock by being sent by mail and the additional shock of ‘bad weather' can push some over the edge. I only order these sorts of plants in early fall or late spring (preferably the latter).
Be sure to check out the Garden Watchdog if you want to order some palms and cycads. There are many excellent vendors and I have ordered--and can vouch--for many of them. Just be sure to add your comments to the Garden Watchdog yourself afterwards.