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Nine Iron-Clad Palms

( Originally Published 1923 )

The best graceful foliage plants that will successfully withstand for long periods the variable temperature, dust, and gas of the ordinary living room.

AMONG the best all-round house plants, of a purely decorative nature, are the palms. In the sizes best adapted for house culture, the stem is short, but from it arises a cluster of long, slender, arching leaves which are bold and massive, yet, at the same time, light and airy. One great advantage they have over most plants is that they do not need a large amount of direct sunlight; in fact, the light of a north window is sufficient. If for purposes of decoration you wish to put them in a dark corner of the room or in a hall, they can stay there three or four days without injury; but they must then be put back in the light to recuperate, for no green plant can live long without light.


It is really very hard to give a good description of the individual kinds of palm, because many of them look so much alike. This is particularly true when in the young state; in most of them, the seed leaves show no distinguishing characteristics whatever, the characteristic leaves not being developed until the plants are nearly a year old. Even in some of the older plants, there is not much difference. For instance, until I became fairly well acquainted with palms, I was continually confusing the areca with the kentia and seaforthia. Some hundreds of species make up the host of palms, and there would be endless confusion and disappointment were the amateur to attempt their cultivation in the house. The only ones to be considered are the following.

The best two palms for house culture are the curly palm (Howea Belmoreana) and the thatch leaf palm (Howea Forsteriana). They are universally known throughout the trade, however, as Kentia Belmoreana and K. Forsteriana. They might be identified in popular terms as the erect kentia and the spreading kentia. Although very much alike, Belmoreana can readily be told from Fosteriana by the more upright leaflets, those of Forsteriana have a decidedly, drooping tendency. Moreover, Belmoreana has a dwarfer, more spreading habit than Forsteriana, while the latter is a stronger grower and has broader foliage. As ordinarily seen in the florists' shops, a kentia in a six-inch pot is two to two and one-half feet high and has half a dozen leaves, two-thirds of the leaf consisting of a long, slender gradually tapering, arching stem surmounted by many broad, dark green leaflets set in two rows. Both these palms will succeed where no other palms can be grown.


Probably the Chinese fan palm (Livistona Chinensis, but usually spoken of in the trade as Latania Borbonica) is the most popular of house palms, and, to my eye, certainly the most beautiful. It does not grow nearly as tall as the kentia, but is much broader. In this palm the leaf stem is as long as the leaf, and for more than half the length of the leaf, its edges are covered with short, stout, sharp spines. The leaf is a foot or more in diameter, the outer edge being divided into long narrow drooping segments. The foliage is a deep, rich green, and presents a more massive appearance than that of any other palm. This will succeed in any room where the temperature does not go below 45 degrees at night.

I know of one specimen of this which was grown for the last ten years in a north window during the winter and on the porch in the summer. The owner secured it from a florist as a small plant in a six-inch pot and was so successful in the management that the plant grew until it took up so much space in the room as to be actually in the way.

A somewhat stiff, formal, but interesting palm is the so-called ground rattan (Rhapis fabelliformis). It is a slow grower and lasts very well indeed in the house. The rhapis seldom grows more than five or six feet high. The stem is three-quarters of an inch to an inch in diameter and covered with a mass of dark brown threads which are the remains of the leaf sheaths. A cluster of very deeply divided dark green leaves is borne on the top of the stem, each of which is about a foot in diameter. The rhapis differs from most of the palms in that it produces suckers, each of which sends up a stem so that in time the plant will become as broad as it is tall.

The most beautiful dwarf palm in cultivation is Cocos Weddelliana, and as a house plant it is extremely popular.- The characteristic leaves are developed at a very early stage, and as the plant is a slow grower, it retains its beauty for a long time. The short stem of the C. Weddelliana bears numerous gracefully arching leaves which are a foot or more long and three or four inches wide, and remind one of a feather. The leaflets are very slender, and silvery white on the reverse. It is particularly useful for table decoration in fern dishes as a centre piece, small ferns, such as pteris, and selaginella moss being placed about the base.

This is often referred to as the cocoanut palm; that belongs to the same genus, but is quite different, however, in having large broad leaves in the young state.

Although of no value as a house plant, lots of fun may be had from growing the cocoanut palm from seed. To do this, secure a cocoanut with the husk on and place it on its side in a pot filled with soil. Do not bury more than one-quarter of the nut. The germination is very interesting as a leaf will appear long before there is any sign of a root, which may not develop for a year. The cocoanut is easily injured by too much water; it needs practically none.


About the only other palms which succeed in the house are the date palms (Phoenix Canariensis, reclinata, and Roebelenii). These are all very much alike, the chief differences being the habit of growth. P. Roebelenii is a real dwarf; the leaves, grace-fully curving, are only a foot or so long. It withstands the hardships of house cultivation equally as well as does the kentia and when small is as graceful as Cocos Weddelliana. It is perhaps the most costly of all the house palms. P. rupicola is probably the hardiest. It seems able to with-stand almost any hardship which may be imposed upon it. In the South and in California, P. Canariensis is considered the handsomest of all the date palms. The leaves are more slender and graceful than in the other palms and it is also the fastest growing date palm.

Considerable fun may be had from raising date palms (P. dactylifera) from the dates of the grocery stores. The seeds will germinate in a few weeks, but the plant I cannot recommend, it is too stiff and not so graceful as the kinds just named.


The palm most often sold by the florist is the areca (Chrysolidocarpus lutescens, but known in the trade as Areca lutescens). This is easily distinguished from the other palms by its golden yellow leaf-stem and also by the little plants which may be seen growing around the base; like the rhapis; the areca sends out underground suckers. The leaflets are flat, long, and narrow, and of a bright glossy green. The areca can be grown successfully in the house, but it requires some care and it will not stand hard-ships like the other palms already mentioned.


The plants must not be subjected at any time to sudden changes of temperature, such as a draught blowing across them from an open window or door; and the sudden falling of the temperature of the room will cause a chill; the leaves then turn brown and possibly they will die in a short time. To recuperate such plants will need a year or so in a greenhouse under the care of a skilful grower.

Palms need lots of water, but the soil must never become water-logged. If plenty of drainage is given in the bottom of the pot, and sand and charcoal added to the soil, there will be no danger of over-watering for the surplus will drain away quickly.

Keep the leaves of the palms clean by passing a damp sponge over the surface each day. If the plants are not too large to' handle conveniently, carry them to the sink or bath tub and syringe them with clean water. Be sure to syringe the under side as well as the top, for this will prevent the red spider and the thrips from gaining a foothold on the plants.


Palms may be grown from seed in the window garden without any more care than is ordinarily given to other house plants, except that they need bottom heat and this can be easily given if the suggestions on page 59 are followed.

The first requisite is fresh seed. With few exceptions, seedsmen do not carry palm seed in stock but it may be secured through a few of the larger retail seeds-men and through some of the wholesalers. Place your order with them asking that the seed be shipped to you as soon as received. Not all the species reach the markets at the same time. For instance, Kentia seed arrives twice a year, in January or February and in September or October. Many of the florists prefer the fall shipment to the winter one, as they seem to have better success in germinating the seed. Livistona seed arrives in February; Cocos in January; Areca in April or May; Phoenix Canariensis and P. reclinata from January to March; and P. Roebelinii in January.

Sow the seeds at once upon arrival because they deteriorate very rapidly. A good seed soil for palms may be made from three or four parts of peat, one of rotted sod and one of sand. To this add some finely broken charcoal two pounds to a bushel of soil it will help to keep the soil sweet.

As palms in the young state are very impatient of any meddling with the roots, the window gardener had better sow the seeds in pots. Sink two-inch pots filled with soil in a flat filled with sand and plant the seeds one-quarter to one-half of an inch deep, one to a pot.

When large quantities of palms are being raised from seed, the seeds may be sown thickly in seed pans or flats, which are not over three inches deep, or they may even be sown on a greenhouse bench. There is a disadvantage in so doing, however. The young plants must be transferred to deep two-inch pots as soon as the second leaf is developed. In transplanting, the long tap root is very apt to become injured and the plant will probably die. About 75 per cent. of the injured plants can be saved, however, if the damaged portion of the root is cut off; use a sharp knife and make a clean cut.

The length of time it takes palm seed to germinate varies. Kentia seed usually comes up in about ten weeks but sometimes all the seeds will not germinate for eight or nine months. Cocos takes about ten weeks if the seed is perfectly fresh if not, it will take longer; Areca and Livistona will come up in a month and the date palms (Phoenix) require about two months. When the seed is not perfectly fresh, only part will grow. Germination may be helped somewhat by scratching or filing the outer coat of those which have hard shells.

After the young palm plants of any sort have become established in two-inch pots, the culture is simple. They will need, how-ever, a rather high temperature and moist atmosphere for some months to come, after which they may be inured to almost any reasonable hardship.

Do not give the young plants any manure in the soil. A potting soil made up of two parts of peat, one of rich loam such as a rotted sod, and one part of sand will give the best results. Leafmould is too light for palms, but a little may be added to the rotted sod if peat is not available. An addition of charcoal is also advisable, using the same quantity as already advised for the seed soil.

As the plants become older, a little well-decayed horse manure may be added to the soil with benefit. The best time to repot palms is in the spring or early summer April to June before much growth takes place, but they can be shifted at any time up to the first or middle of October without harm. After that date it is unsafe to disturb the roots; disaster is almost sure to follow any meddling with the root system during the winter.

Never overpot palms, for the soil will become soured very easily. A shift of one size at a time is enough. When repotting be very careful not to injure the roots; but if any are injured, cut off the injured portion with a sharp knife, making a clean cut. If the roots have bound up the drainage, get out all that is possible without injury to the roots, and fill the hole up with good soil before putting the plant back into the pot. The new soil must be firmly packed about the old ball. To do this, use a thin potting stick. It is possible, of course, to get the soil too firm but in practice there is not much danger of it.

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