Palms are iconic trees, the image representing tropical desert islands, with their tall trunks topped with an impressive crown of divided leaves. However, while some palms thrive in these exposed, sunny places, some even growing on the savannahs and surviving drought and fires, the majority grow in tropical and subtropical forests where they tend to be more shaded.
The palm family, Arecaceae, is huge, with around 2,650 species. Most have a solitary trunk, ranging from pencil-thin to extremely stout, but there are also palms that form clumps, are low-growing and some are climbers, such as the rattans.
Cycads are often lumped in with palms because they are similar in appearance, but they are much older plants and they are gymnosperms, meaning they produce cones, unlike the palms, which produce small panicles of flowers.
Palms are some of the best pot plants for growing indoors. While there are different requirements for different species, generally they tolerate the low light levels and dry air of a home quite well. It even restricts their growth, which is good because in ideal conditions they would outgrow the space they have been brought in to grace.
The Kentia palm, Howea forsteriana Award of Garden Merit (AGM), is probably the most popular palm for indoor cultivation because it copes so well with low light and dry air. This is because it grows on the forest floor, like other genera Caryota, Chamaedorea, Rhapis and the species Phoenix roebelenii. However, generally palms like bright but indirect light, so a north-facing window or a position where the sunlight is filtered through net curtains, blinds or shutters is ideal.
As most of the palms are tropical species they generally prefer humid conditions so can often do well in humid parts of the house such as the kitchen or bathroom. Electric humidifiers can be used to add to the atmosphere. If that is too much, regular misting with rainwater can be a simpler solution.
The compost in which palms are being grown should be kept moist. They may need watering up to twice a week in the summer but water them much less often in the winter, being careful not to overwater and letting plants sit in saucers of water, which could prove fatal.
Problems will be displayed by changes in the leaves. Brown tips are usually a sign that the room is too dry. Yellowing leaves indicate underwatering. Brown spots on the leaves can be due to overwatering or sudden chilling. The lowest leaves will naturally turn brown and droop — these should be routinely snipped off — but if all the leaves start to turn brown and there are signs of rotting, it is a sure sign that the plant is being watered too much.
What the specialists say
Julie Burton, company director, Office Plants, East Sussex
"Indoor palms are not the simplest to care for because you need to get the light and humidity balance right. They like good light generally, but will tolerate some lower light conditions. They need to be kept moist but not overwatered and don’t like to dry out completely. They love being misted with water as often as possible, preferring humid conditions, but not in full sunlight as this will scorch the leaves.
"They are very beautiful, elegant plants and there are many to choose from — Areca, Kentia, Phoenix, Chameodrea and Cycas to name a few. The Phoenix roebellini needs maximum light, as does the Cycas."
Toby Shobbrook, nursery manager, The Palm Centre, Richmond
"Indoor palms have become more popular in the last few years. Most are easy to care for and some can improve indoor air quality. Our best sellers are Howea forsteriana, Dypsis lutescens, Rhapis excelsa and Phoenix roebellenii. All adapt well indoors and tolerate low-to-medium light, so suit the corner of a room or hallway.
"The palms we sell for indoor use are happy in the average home. Many will cope with the dry air and low light levels that winter and central heating produce. To get the best from your palm you should keep it away from any direct sources of heat and choose a location where it receives bright natural daylight, but avoid direct sunshine through glass as this can burn the leaves.
"Some palms — Howea and particularly Rhapis — cope with very low light levels, but this isn’t to say they would not appreciate a brighter aspect. Care should be taken with palms placed in the conservatory. Young plants or naturally shade-loving species like Chamaedorea can be scorched by direct sun through the glass, so adequate shade or filtered light should be provided.
"An inevitable problem growing palms indoors is the amount of dust that builds up on the leaves over time. This can restrict the amount of light that gets through to the plant. I would personally avoid leaf-shine products. I think the best way to refresh your palm is to wipe the leaves down with slightly soapy water or stand it outside during a summer shower."
Sonya Huggins, interior plant carer, London
"I find palms quite easy to care for in the offices I visit. Regular watering ensures leaves stay healthy and don’t crisp up at the ends, and regular feeding is also a good idea. Leaf shine is good to keep leaves clean and healthy. Mealy bug and red spider mite can sometimes be
"The popular Kentia palm is an excellent choice for offices. Because of its upright growth it can be placed close to desks and its leaves look attractive as they unfurl. If any turn brown they can easily be clipped off and do not spoil the overall appearance."
Species and varieties
Bismarckia nobilis has large, palmate, glaucous leaves with a silvery tone that are held stiffly in the crown. They need high light levels and are best grown in a conservatory. Although they have the potential to grow to 25m, they are slow-growing indoors.
Caryota mitis, or the fishtail palm, features attractive fishtail-shaped leaves. It is a clustering palm that likes indirect light and humidity. Can reach up to 10m in height but grows moderately inside, usually to about 1.5m.
Chamaedorea elegans AGM (H1A), the parlour palm, is an elegant feather-leafed palm that grows a thin reedy trunk. Its leaves are soft and light-green. It copes well with shade and dry air, and is compact and slow-growing so suits being grown indoors. Height: 1m.
Chamaedorea metalica has a crown of simple fishtail-lobed leaves that curve inwards and are textured with the leaf veins. The leaves have a metallic sheen, seen best in shaded conditions. Likes humid conditions. Be careful not to let the soil dry out. Height: 2m.
Chamaedorea seifrizii is also known as the bamboo palm because of its clustering clump of stems, ringed similarly to bamboo. Each stem is topped by an open crown of feather leaves. Tolerant of low light levels and dry air, but does best in bright indirect light with a humid atmosphere. Height: 2m.
Cycas revoluta AGM (H2), the sago palm, is the most commonly cultivated cycad. It has a crown of glossy, deep-green leaves that when mature is surrounded by offsets, atop a tall rough-feeling trunk. Can reach 4m but slow-growing indoors.
Dypsis lutescens (syn. Chrysalidocarpus lutescens) AGM (H1A) — or the Areca, butterfly or golden cane palm — is a bushy and attractive plant with arching, feathery leaves. Prefers a position with plenty of bright but indirect sunlight, regular watering and feeding, and a moist, buoyant atmosphere. Height: 2.5m.
Howea forsteriana AGM (H1B), the Kentia palm, is perhaps the most popular palm. A slow-growing, elegant plant that copes with shady conditions, dry air and even some neglect. Height: 2.4m.
Phoenix roebelenii AGM (H1B), the pygmy date palm, has a thin fibrous trunk and delicate arching leaves. Copes well with the low light levels and dry air within a house. Likely to stay compact inside but can reach up to 3m.
Rhapis excelsa AGM (H1B) is a very attractive palm with clustering upright stems that are clothed in fibre and from which are held the short, glossy, dark-green fan leaves. It has compact growth, grows slowly, prefers low light levels and tolerates a dry atmosphere. Height: 2m.
Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library