Cultivating Palms


Anyone who becomes familiar with the beauty of palm trees and their multiple uses can be forgiven for wanting to cultivate them and to have them near for their beauty and for their products. If one has space for even a few large pots it is possible to have palms, whether one lives in the temperate zone or the tropics. Nevertheless, some of the great palms of the tropics are difficult to grow because of size, ecological requirements, or because of rarity. The suggestions provided here for growing palms can be considered to be useful in the majority of cases, yet, there are always exceptions to these general rules.

Collecting Seeds and Plants

The easiest way to begin to grow palms is to buy young plants in containers. The kinds of palms that are easiest to grow in any particular region will often be found in local nurseries, and the nursery person will usually know something about their suitability and adaptation. In the case of a small collection, this is probably the best way to go. However, a person might wish to begin with seeds of the small plants collected from the wild.

To propagate palms from seeds it is highly desirable to obtain fresh, clean fruits from beneath existing palms. Old fruits are not likely to be viable. If the flesh is very extensive, it should be pealed away, and the seed can be cleaned by hand or with a brush. Sometimes such palm fruits are left for a few days in water where natural decomposition softens the flesh and makes cleaning much easier. The cleaned seeds are then dried and can be shipped, but the viability of palm seeds varies, and long storage times are not advised. Good advise is to plant seeds as quickly as possible. n 1 d seeds may go dormant and need special techniques, such as hot water treatment to break the dormancy. The best situations for storage are moist, cool conditions. A great exception to these rules is the coconut, where germination is best when the fresh, entire fruit is half buried on its side, or even with stem end up in a shady and moist location. The seeds of the betel nut are another that germinates readily without cleaning the seeds. Therefore, specific knowledge of the techniques for a species is often desirable, but when not available some experimentation may be useful.

For those who are interested in the less common useful palms, obtaining either seeds or young plants may be very difficult. As a first source, check with local botanical gardens or with garden clubs, or with the local branch of the International Palm Society (PO Box 1897, Lawrence, Kansas 66044-8897). A membership in the society will bring regular copies of the two journals published, and provide names and addresses of many sources as well as access to the most important literature on the palms. Even so' collecting palms is a challenge, and thus a popular hobby.

Collection of seedlings under existing palms may seem to be an economical solution, yet such seedlings are often rare, for the palm itself might be successfully established, yet the conditions under the palm may not be adequate for good seed germination. Small seedlings may be difficult to uproot without excessive damage to their roots. Yet, if young plants with good roots are obtained, transplanting itself might not be difficult.

There are very few palms that can be multiplied by vegetative means. A notable exception is the lady palm, Rhapis which extends underground rhizomes which sprout readily. These can be readily cut away from the mother plant and are easy to establish. Multiple-trunked palms with small side shoots are not at all easy to establish. The sideshoots often are intimately connected with the mother palm, have few of their own roots, and are difficult to separate and not very viable on transplanting.

Germinating Seeds

Palm seeds are germinated in pots or trays, or in the case of the coconut and others with large seeds, in carefully prepared beds. The ideal medium for germination is a soil mixture that includes some loam or clay, some organic material, and some materials to facilitate drainage and aeration, such as sand and vermiculite. Sterilization of the medium is desirable to eliminate weed seeds, and this can be done on a small scale by heating the soil in an oven or by saturating the soil with boiling water. The palm seeds are covered superficially, not more than by a depth corresponding to their diameters. The trays are placed in warm, moist, shady places where they are never stressed by dryness nor by overwatering.

The time to germination varies, not only with species but also with freshness. Fresh seed often germinate in a few months while old seed might germinate slowly and irregularly. A few seeds, such as the double coconut, might need one or more years to germinate. Uniformity of germination is highly desirable in order to provide transplanting and other care also uniformly.

Care and Transplanting

As soon as feasible after germination the young palms should be grown in individual containers. As a rule, these should be small and give sufficient room for growth and no more. Pots ought to be longer than wide to give roots a chance to grow. Palms may be transplanted progressively, as they grow, into somewhat larger pots. The potting mixture is as important as the rooting mixture and the basic requirements are the same, good drainage, yet water holding qualities, organic material and progressively increased fertilizer as the plants grow. The pods should be kept moist but not flooded (except in the case of those species with very high water requirements). Shade is very important.

Young palms form the base of the trunk at more or less its final size before beginning serious upward growth. Therefore, they may appear to be growing very slowly, although the underground base and the root system may be constantly expanding. Thoughtful observation of the palms is desirable. As the palm approaches the necessary size for

transplanting to a permanent site it can be gradually exposed to greater amounts of sunlight. At all times the foliage should be observed for yellowing, and mineral or organic fertilizers should be added to promote growth.

Palms in your landscaping

Unless you are planting palms in an orchard, the site for the young palm must be chosen with great care. A palm is a large object in the environment, and will occupy a prominent place in the home garden. Palms can serve the same purposes in the home landscape as other trees and shrubs. The largest palms can be used as background and framing, the intermediates as accents at corners or in ornamental islands, and the smaller between windows. Only the very smallest are suitable for containers, but this might include the pacayas, Chamaedorea species. The specific needs of the species should be met, if possible. For example, small palms of the understory of the forest need to be planted in shady locations. Palms that need large amounts of water will need very wet sites, and growing the nipa palm may be possible only where deep and permanently wet mud banks exist. Thus, choice of site involves artistic considerations and knowledge of the palm species.

Large holes are recommended for palms, and these can be filled with organic material and soil mixtures according to the needs of the palm. The plant should be located in the hole so that the level of the plant in the pot becomes the level of the plant in the permanent location.

Of importance in growing palms for beauty or for food production is to give them conditions and treatment that mimic those of the regions that are their natural homes. This might require some innovation on the part of the gardener, but it will be well worth the effort in order to develop healthy and productive plants.

Copyright © 1999 All Rights Reserved