Indoor palms: Selecting and caring for these popular houseplants
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 29, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Though I personally prefer growing palms outdoors, I live in a climate where that is possible. Palms, in general, are tropical plants and most cannot adapt to colder climates. However, there are a number that survive and even do well indoors. What I mean by indoors, is in a house, business or mall. A greenhouse is a very different situation and one can grow literally thousands of species in a greenhouse (if one had a humongous greenhouse, that is). Ones choices are vast. But in a house that humans live in, the list of possibilities is much smaller thanks to poor lighting, low humidity and stagnant air flow typical of most dwellings. This is particularly true if one lives in a climate where it gets cold much of the year and one can’t keep the palm outdoors for long. The following is a discussion of some good and bad choices for indoor palms, as well as suggestions on how to care for them.
In a greenhouse like this you can grow literally thousands of species, but the lighting and humidity are far above what one encounters in most homes
Buying a palm for indoor use:
your local home garden center is a good place to get house palms believe it or not
Start healthy- when buying a palm for your house, be sure to start with the healthiest one you can find. Avoid plants with lots of dead leaves, funny smelling or sloggy soil, or too ‘stretched’. Etiolated palms are those grown as tall as possible, as quickly as possible, but not necessarily as healthy as possible. It is sometimes better to get a smaller, more compact palm than a tall, potentially weakened plant. Look on the undersides of the leaves for bugs, particularly mealy bug (will look like small cottony dots). Look at the leaves for subtle speckling that could be spider mite damage. Seeing roots coming out of the bottom of the pot is not a bad thing and often means the plant is growing well. Root-bound palms are not necessarily something to shy away from, but will probably need to be moved up a pot size soon. However, if the pot is bent or splitting, you should plan on repotting it very soon.
When one goes looking for an indoor palm, one need not look too hard for the ones that do the best. Just about any nursery or garden outlet center will sell Kentia palms and Lady palms. Most will sell Parlor palms and Fishtail palms. But most will also sell Majesty palms and Areca Palms, two species that do not typically excel as indoor palms, but are frequently sold as such. At the end of this article are a list of some of the better indoor palms (not, by any means a complete list).
Palm on the left is NOT healthy- note the dead leaves at the bottom... but plant on right is in perfect condition. Cost is same. Get the healthy one!
Caring for Indoor palms:
Most palms like bright light. Some will tolerate low light situations and that’s why they make good indoor palms, but most would still rather be in bright light. Unless the palm is going to be in direct sunlight every day, indirect lighting is best (sky lights are ideal) or windows facing in such a way no direct sunlight, or only early morning sunlight hits the fronds. Continuous low light usually makes palms etiolate (stretch) abnormally and weaken. Such palms are much more prone to getting parasites. If you have a low light situation and still want a palm, be sure to chose one that will do well in low light (only a few will).
Though a terrible palm for indoor use, this Majesty palm seedling is a good example of an etiolated palm- note the super tall leaves from being grown in a dark greenhouse
Palms like heat. Fortunately sufficient heat for survival is not usually a problem in most indoor situations. But too much dry heat will cause leaf damage, and possibly even root damage if the roots dry out too much. Try not to place palms in front of heaters or air conditioners or unheated rooms in a cold winter, though most will tolerate those conditions at least for a while.
Water is essential, of course, for all plant life. Palms, being for the most part tropical plants by nature, usually appreciate a regular watering schedule. If planted in well draining soil one can water fairly regularly. The more water a palm gets, as long as it’s not sitting in heavy, sloggy, poorly draining soil, the faster it will grow. But some palms used as indoor palms are NOT tropical and can rot with a careless watering schedule, so be careful. Overpotted palms, even the most tropical water-loving species, can rot in too-wet soil for too long. Palm roots do not like sitting in water, either, so if using a pan below the pot, empty it once the water is done draining through.
Tap water has a lot of salts in it. After months of watering a house plant, the salts tend to build up in the soil and can cause root damage. It is recommended to ‘leach’ your palm about every 3-4 months. That means take it outdoors and thoroughly water it many times to rinse the soil of its accumulated salts. If you use distilled water, the concerns about salt build up will be much less. However fertilizer application will also cause salt build-up in the soil, so leaching now and then is still recommended.
Fertilization of palms is a tricky subject. All palms can benefit from the judicious use of fertilizers, but indoor palms have far less need of fertilizer than do outdoor palms. With less light, less heat, cramped roots and low humidity, most indoor palms grow fairly slowly and their needs are far less than they would be if they were growing normally. Over-fertilization and burning of the palm’s roots is a big concern and one the most common problems encountered in keeping indoor palms.
Humidity is probably the biggest limiting factor in keeping indoor palms healthy, with lighting being a close second. Unfortunately high humidity is a rare situation in most living quarters. But if one could keep their home humidity up, say around 50% or more, the number of palms that would do well indoors would be multiplied by 100 or more. Mold would grow on the walls, however, in such a house. One’s books would rot, and there would be all sorts of related unlivable consequences to keeping a home ideally humid. One has to limit oneself to the small number of palms that tolerate the low humidity encountered in most homes. And even those few palms appreciate regular misting of their leaves with distilled water. Low humidity has the effect of drying out the sensitive leaflets, making the palms not only look unsightly, but also weak. Eventually palms needing high humidity will lose most or all their leaves and succumb.
this is a good example of a palm that has needs in many areas that cannot be met indoors and is one of the worst, but frequently tried, indoor palms there are. This is Cyrtostachys renda, or Sealing Wax Palm, one of the world's most beautiful palms. But it has extremely high needs for light, humidity, good water quality as well as heat. It is even a difficult greenhouse palm in all the warmest, wettest, well-lit greenhouses with reverse osmosis watering systems
Air flow is another problem with keeping palms indoors. Poor air circulation allows for infestation of mites and insects, as well simply an unhealthful air quality for proper transpiration and photosynthesis. This is one of the reasons it’s a good idea to move house palms outdoors periodically, weather permitting.
Moving palms outdoors- most house palms appreciate some time outdoors. Usually the humidity is higher, the air quality is better and the light is certainly brighter. In this situation, one can water their palms more thoroughly and more often, trying to leach some of the salts from the soil. But if the palm has not been in full morning sun while in the house, avoid putting it in full sun outdoors, or the leaves will sunburn (even on palms that normally live in full sun).
This Chamaedorea stolonifera appreciates being taken outdoors now and then and given a thorough leaching, as well as enjoying the brighter light and higher humidity for a few months while it's warm
Repotting palms is recommended only if they really need it. Those with a lot of horticultural experience know most plants and trees do not like to be root bound, and cramped roots can make the plant less happy and healthy. Palms are quite different in this regard and seem to almost rather be root bound than otherwise. Palm roots do not seem to suffer from overcrowding until there is far less soil than there are roots in a pot. Palms in plastic pots will usually rip through the pot walls when it is time to repot them. However those kept in ceramic pots will rarely be able to do this. If planting a palm in such a pot, one either needs to get a fairly large pot so repotting will not be necessary (unfortunately this means over-potting so careful watering these palms), or a cheap ceramic pot, as often the pot will need to be broken to get the palm out of it. A good compromise is to keep the palm in a plastic pot, and place that pot into a ceramic one (this is how most professional indoor landscapers proceed). If a palm needs to moved up to a larger pot, it is best to select one only somewhat larger, not vastly larger. Overpotting (too large a pot for size of plant) is a good way to allow roots to stay too wet and rot. When repotting a palm, it is best NOT to mess with the roots. Some growers recommend unwinding or tearing off excessive roots from other types of plants, but palms have very sensitive roots in this regard and will often sulk, if not die, from this practice. If a palm’s roots are the shape of the old pot, that is a good thing. Just leave them that way and put the whole pot-shaped rootball into the new pot and fill with soil around the roots. Water thoroughly soon after, and frequently for a few weeks.
Another example of a palm that does poorly indoors (but is being sold as an indoor palm) is this Dypsis lutescens on the left. This palm is literally splitting the pot open, but is growing happily and is very healthy. The roots on the right belong to Chamaedorea cataractarum, a decent palm for indoor use. Most people that buy this palm would immediately want to move it up a pot size, but that isn't necessarily a good idea. It may be a bit cramped in this pot, but that is OK until there is not much soil left.. then it needs to be moved up.
Common indoor palm problems:
Probably the most commonly encountered palm malady is ‘brown tipping’ and leaf loss. This can be caused by a number of situations including too low humidity, poor water quality and/or salt build-up in the soil, overwatering with poorly draining soils, underwatering with extremely well draining soils, and excessive heat or cold. Some palms are more resistant to brown tipping than others, and those are usually the ones most commonly encountered in nurseries. But if one takes care to avoid salt build up, waters carefully and mists the plants regularly, many palms will continue to look good.
Chamaedorea tuerckheimii does not even make a good outdoor palm in most areas of Southern California due to the low humidity- look at the severe brown tipping due to low humidity and poor water quality. Indoor palms would never survive.
Insects and mites are another common malady of indoor palms, though certainly not unique to palms. Spider mites are particularly problematic as their presence is rarely noticed until significant leaflet damage has been done. These minute arachnids are quite hard to see, but sometimes a fine white webbing can be seen on the undersides of the leaves. Stippling of the leaf creating a pale looking, bleached leaf is the result of their consuming of palm tissues. Control with frequent misting, increased air flow and insecticidal soap as needed. Dry, still homes are the perfect environment for spider mites to thrive in. Mealy bugs are less common and much easier to see, particularly if the undersides of the leaves and leaf bases are checked regularly. Check for ants, too, if these are seen and control for them as well.
this poor Chamaedorea seifrizii is being chewed up by spider mites and thrips
Over-potting and rot is another relatively common situation for those who worry the palm is in too small a pot and have moved it prematurely up into a much larger pot with new soil of a very high organic nature that holds too much water. Avoid over-potting, and treat currently ill plants with antifungal solutions as needed (caution, these solutions may be quite toxic to you or your pets).
Though this species (probaby Howea forsteriana) handles overpotting more than most, this is more soil than these seedlings really need... but as there are multiple plants in this pot, and Howeas are pretty tough seedlings, they will probably be OK. These were just sold as 'indoor foliage'.
The good palms:
By far and away the best indoor palm is the Howea forsteriana or Kentia Palm. This is a native of Lord Howe Island, a dinky island off of Australia where several other decent palms for indoor use come from. It is a feather or pinnate palm with a solitary trunk and ornamentally pendant leaflets as an adult. However, most house plants rarely attain this adult leaf form unless one has a large atrium for them to grow in. Young palms have more upright leaves that look like they are shooting out of the ground. Most Howeas are sold in pots that contain 3-5 plants, usually of differing heights. These are moderately slow growing palms, but will pick up speed if planted in the ground. Howeas can survive in amazingly low light situations and still stay a healthy, deep green color. For that reason they are far and away the most commonly seen indoor palm, both on the silver screen, and in the malls and shops around the US. Their thick, leathery leaves are fairly resistant to the effects of low humidity as well as to spider mites and mealy bugs. These palms are also somewhat resistant to drought and will survive seemingly unaffected by the soil getting pretty dry periodically. However, this plant still performs best with plenty of light, water, humidity and air flow. One should not think it is ‘happy’ in a dismal indoor situation… just tolerant.
First photo is of a clump of Howeas in home garden center ready to go indoors. Second one is my own house Howeas living in a ceramic pig. Last photo is of Howea in indoor mall
Various pottted maturing single potted plants, and lastly, on the right, some outdoor landscape Howeas in southern California
Howea belmoreana (Sentry Palm) is the other Howea species form Lord Howe Island and not nearly as hardy a palm as Howea forsteriana. However, if misted regularly and the soil kept evenly moist, these can perform well as indoor palms, too. This species differs from Howea forsteriana in having upright leaflets, rather than leaflets that tend to droop. Hedyscepe canterburyana (Umbrella Palm) is the other Lord Howe Island palm that can succeed as an indoor plant, but is the most difficult of the three thanks to its increased need for humidity. It is one of the palms with a crownshaft that performs as an indoor palm. This is a pretty thirsty palm and benefits as well from very frequent misting. Best to put the slightest amount of alcohol and dishwashing soap in the misting formula to prevent bud rot.
Outdoor Howea belmoreana in Santa Monica California on the left; Adult Hedyscepe on the right, and a crop of Hedyscepe seedlings ready for indoor use on the right
Nearly as ideal as the Kentia palm is Rhapis excelsa, the Lady Palm, a small, clustering fan palm from Asia. This plant is nearly equally as hardy in terms of drought tolerance and spider mites, but not nearly so of low light situations. On the other hand, Rhapis don’t like direct sunlight, either, while Howeas can adapt to full sun. These are very slow growing palms, but fortunately are readily available at most garden outlet centers at sizes that make good ready-made house plants. There are several other Rhapis species that do well as indoor plants, such as Rhapis multifida and Rhapis subtilis. But by far the most common one in cultivation is the Lady Palm. Cultivars of Rhapis excelsa exist that have highly ornamental variegation and these makes ideal house plants as well. However, these cultivars can be extremely expensive and they should not be purchased unless one is very serious about taking excellent care of them.
left: Rhapis excelsa in home garden center; other two photos are of exceptional variegated Rhapis excelsas, which also make ideal house plants. Most of these variegated are costly so most end up indoors anyway (too valuable to toss into the garden)
Rhapis multifidas are also good indoor palms, but do tend to brown tip a bit in low humidity or as salts build up in the soil. Plant on right is a 'large leaf' form of Rhapis multifida
on left is a hybrid called Rhapis Alicia, an very popular and durable plant that does well indoors. One in the middle is a 'new' species call Rhapis Nova Laos that also seems to be acceptable as a house plant. Right photo is of Rhapis subtilis, but a rare variegated form- excellent house plant!
Next on the list of good palms for the home is the common Chamaedorea elegans, or Parlor palm. This is a Mexican species from the dense jungles where the environment is constantly moist and humid, never cold. But surprisingly, this palm is extremely drought tolerant, probably the most of all the indoor palms. It is a slow growing, small, single stemmed feather palm with very thin leaflets that spread laterally and somewhat upwards. These are also commonly sold in groups of 3-20 plants per pot, though sometimes larger solitary specimens are available. The green stem is ornamentally ringed in white. This palm is very tolerant of low light situations, but highly sensitive to spider mites in very dry locations. The thin leaflets of this palm are quickly decimated by such pests. Snails also love to eat this species, but snails are pretty rare indoor pests.
Solitary house plant (mine) and two shots of clumps of Chameadorea elegans being sold as house plants in local home garden center. Last photos is of an older, well grown indoor palm (photo by MrRedwood)
There are many Chamaedorea species that make acceptable indoor palms, though none are quite as ‘bullet-proof’ as Chamaedorea elegans. Some of the better ones include Chamaedorea ernesti-augustii, a solitary larger Chamaedorea with bifid (unsplit, sort of fish-tail-shaped) leaves; Chamaedorea stolonifera, a suckering species that spreads by rhizomes and also has bifid leaves; Chamaedorea cataractarum (aka Cat Palm) is a common palm nowadays at garden outlet centers- it is a tightly suckering feather palm with dark, green, thin leaflets… this one is a bit needier in the water department and cannot tolerate dry soils; Chamaedorea oreophila is a solitary species very similar to Chamaedorea elegans but a much faster grower and with more leather leaves; Chamaedorea metallica is another pretty good choice for indoor use tolerating extremely low light levels- has bifid unusually shiny, almost metallic-looking leaves that are thick and leathery… these tend to brown tip easily, though; Chamaedorea hooperiana is a nice, larger, gracefully suckering plant that spreads out some 5’ or more from above only a 5 gal pot; Chamaedora radicalis is a very hardy palm with very dark, wide pinnate leathery leaves… it can tolerate direct sunlight once acclimated, something few of the other Chamaedoreas can do; Chamaedorea seifrizei (also called the Bamboo palm... but many Chamaedoreas are called Bamboo palms, so be careful) is a very commonly sold indoor palm and though fairly needy of higher light situations than most other indoor Chamaedoreas, is a pretty easy, closely suckering upright species.
Chamaedorea metallica living in a pot indoors all its life (in and out), a smaller solo plant in the garden, and several older plants in another garden
Chamaedorea ernestii-augustiis (house plant in left photo and one in ground on the right).
Chamaedorea stoloniferas (plant on left quite old and ready for garden or house, plant in center is in the garden and plant on right is a rare variegated form living its life in a pot)- the three above species all excellent indoor 'fish tail' or bifid leaf Chamaedoreas
Chamaedorea seifriziis, one in park, next in home garden center ready to be sold as house plant, and third in my garden that was a house plant at one time
Chamaedorea cataractarums are also fairly good house plants, but need a lot of water, and distilled water is best (or will get severely brown tipped)- mist a lot
Chamaedorea adcendens is a pretty hardy species but not tried much for indoor use. Chamaedorea klotschiana is a fairly decent indoor palm but needs a lot of misting. Chamaedorea oblongata can sometimes survive looking OK indoors, too, but also needs misting
and 4 other fairly good choices are Chamaedorea oreophila, Chamaedorea radicalis, Chamadorea tepejilote and Chamaedorea hooperiana
Caryota mitis is a Fish-tail Palm and a member of the only genus of palms with bipinnate leaves (leaves that branch again) and is a moderately decent indoor plant for well lit rooms. This is an suckering Asian species that is a moderately fast grower, at least in the ground. Indoors it tends to get a bit pale, is sensitive to spider mites, low humidity and dry soils. But if given plenty of light, water and some regular misting, it can be a great looking indoor palm. Its needs for fertilization may be a bit higher than most other indoor palms. Chamaedorea urens are often sold as Chamaedorea mitis, but are actually solitary, huge palms planted in groups and sold as a clumping plant, so that one would guess they were buying a single suckering species. It is not that Chamaedorea urens makes a horrible indoor palm, but it gets big way to fast to last very long as one (these eventually grow to 60’ tall outdoors in just 8-10 years!).
Caryota mitis and a variegated form of the same species
4 separate Caryota urens crammed into a single pot to make them look like a suckering Caryota mitis (found this in a home garden center), and the adult forms of this palm showing why these might not make such good house plants (60' tall)
One genus that is usually overlooked for indoor use, but is an excellent indoor palm, is Cryosophila sp.. These plants, all very similar in appearance, are Central American species that live in canopy forests in climates that would not help one to predict that they would be such good indoor palms. These solitary fan palms are also known as Rootspine Palms because, in tropical climates, they grow roots all up and down their trunks like spines. Of course in a dry home they do not form these spines. But they do tolerate low light well, and more importantly, low humidity. They also are exceptionally resistant to spider mites. A little brown tipping is seen if the soil is not rinsed well, but otherwise these are great plants for indoor use. Only problem is they are not commonly available, but any specialty nursery that sells only palms will probably have these.
Indoor palm grown for nearly 10 years in the same spot in a very dark room with a small skylite overhead. Note the attractive, nearly pure white under sides of the leaves. Young outdoor palm and a mature palm in middle and right photos
Though somewhat marginal as an indoor palm, if given plenty of light, some Livistona species will do well indoors, notably Livistona chinensis, or Chinese Fan Palm. This is a fairly slow grower, so it takes a while to outgrow its pot indoors, unlike most of the other Livistona species. Livistona saribus also sometimes works indoors.
Livistona chinensis outdoors (adults and juveniles), and then as an indoor palm on the right (photo on right by Jenfur8)
Other marginally decent indoor palms include Trachycarpus sp. (Windmill palms), Chamaerops (Mediterranean fan palm), Ptychosperma elegans (Solitary palm) and Ptychosperma macarthuri (Macarther’s palm), Phoenix roebellenii (Pygmy Date Palm), Chuniophoenix species, Adonidia, Actinokenta and Chambeyronia (Flame thrower palm). These are all quite needy of either extremely high light situations (not good in normally lit rooms in a home) and/or high misting requirements to keep from brown-tipping. Still, they have been used frequently and successfully by many homeowners and business owners.
Some of the less common Trachycarpus include Trachycarpus princeps, Trachycarpus wagnerianus and Trachycarpus latisectus, all marginal but 'doable' indoor palms- just keep in the brightest light possible.
Chamaerops, though most well known as excellent hardy outdoor palms, can survive indoors.... but eventualy get pretty etiolated and weak after many years and have to be replaced. Plant in middle is a photograph of a young palm by Stevenova. Plant on right is one that was indoors for a while, then moved out. Notice the long older leaves from the indoor life, and the new, short, healthier leaves from being outdoors
Actinokentias are rare but were once commonly used parlor palms in Europe in the 19th century (adult and young palm in Hawaii in the middle photos, and my own plant on right)
Adonidia merrilliis are very popular tropical palms, but also can sometimes be grown indoors in high light situations.
Chambeyronia macrocarpa is a fairly poor house plant, but some manage to keep them healthy looking. Photo on left show why its common name is Flame Thrower palm. Middle palm is outdoors in the tropics, and last palm is my own
Chuniophoenix have not been tried much as house plants, but there is much promise. Left is Chuniophoenix hainensis, and the other two are Chuniophoenix nanas
Another oft tried indoor palm that has met with limited success by some is Licuala grandis, a very common tropical palm, but a tough grow indoors. Yet the second photo shows some relatively healthy looking plants growing indoors
Also tried indoors are Accoelorrhaphe and Phoenix roebelleniis, aka Pigmy Date Palms (the latter being a very common garden outlet plant as can be seen in the photo on the right)
Ptychospema elegans, the Solitaire Palm, obviously works as an indoor palm as seen in the two photos on the right- these are happily growing in the low humidity atmosphere of a California mall
Other species of Ptychosperma sometimes are used as indoor palms (photo on left shows Ptychosperma macarthuri). Right photo is of a Veitchia arecina outdoors, but many malls have this species growing in them, but rarely do they look very healthy
The ‘bad’ palms for indoor use:
Some palms frequently sold as indoor palms, but perform poorly as house plants include the ubiquitous Ravenea rivularis, or Majesty Palm. This solitary feather palm is one that can be found just about everywhere one can buy any sort of palm- they are produced in massive numbers in Florida and sold very cheaply all over the US. However they have extremely high light and water needs that are realistically nearly impossible to meet as indoor palms. Yet some manage to use them as such, but only by keeping them outdoors most of the year when it’s warm enough to do so. Dypsis lutescens, the Areca palm (not the genus Areca, though), is a suckering feather palm and a very commonly sold house plant. But it also has higher light and humidity needs than most homeowners can manage. Both these palms eventually decline and die if kept indoors except in the most ideal situations. Archontophoenix, or King Palms, are also sometimes sold as indoor palms and really do terribly kept inside. These would quickly outgrow an indoor situation even if they could tolerate a low light, low humidity environment long enough to get that large. Syagrus romanzoffiana, or Queen palms are rarely sold as indoor palms, yet some try them anyway. The lack of humidity is not a problem for this species, but this palm basically needs full sun to grow well, and that is pretty hard to provide indoors. They also would quickly outgrow an indoor situation if they could survive long enough to do so.
Here are some shots of dozens of cheap Majesty Palms for sale at two different local home garden centers. The plants on the left are solitary plants and might make good landscape palms in the right climate, but the middle photo shows clusters of these palms obviously for indoor use. Clusters like these don't do well outdoors, either. On the left is a mature palm in southern California
Dypsis lutescens, or the Areca or Butterfly Palm, is another poor choice for indoor use, though a great landscpaping palm. King palms are also good outdoor, but terrible indoor palms. And of course, Queen palms do NOT do well indoors
Coconut palms are often sold as indoor palms in southern California- these do not make good indoor OR outdoor palms here, and rarely survive even a season. Keep your receipt!
So if you need some 'life' in the home, something to make the place seem more elegant and 'complete' and break up the stark monotony of the indoor geometric landscape, something to add some to add some O2 to the atmosphere, something tropical and luxuriant, and something easy and affordable, get some palms for the indoors. And be sure to get the right ones.