Plant Family Overview: Arecaceae (Palms)

Archontophoenix species at the LA County Arboretum & Botanic Garden

Perhaps no other plant family has piqued my interest in botany more than the beautiful palms. This is not at all surprising, of course. My admiration and awe for these sexy plants is shared by millions across the globe. They are the archetypical symbols of luxury, vacations, and the tropics, powered by a massive army of growers and cultivators worldwide. Beyond aesthetics, there are numerous other economical uses for these plants, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll limit our focus to their ornamental value alone.

Even though palms are nearly pantropical, many avid enthusiasts regularly attempt to grow them anyway in their respective climates. Indoors or out, palms can be found in almost every corner of our planet.

In the future, you will likely see detailed profiles of particular species that I find most intriguing.

Biology and Morphology

Palms are flowering monocots of the Arecaceae family of plants. As the linked article describes, most thrive exclusively in subtropical and tropical regions. They are typically single-stemmed, non-branching, and tree-like. Tree-like because there seems to be an ongoing debate as to what constitutes a true tree. The TLDR; answer is that palms do not form rings around their trunks as they age and therefore do not produce what’s known as secondary growth, which technically disqualifies them from true treehood.

Several species are bush-like and clumping, like Rhapsis excelsa and Dypsis lutescens, but most eventually form tree-like woody or semi-woody stems. Their leaves are either palmate or pinnate and are always gorgeous to look at.

Most palms cannot be pruned or rooted from cuttings and must be propagated from seed.

Cultivation and Care

Most palms love fast-draining, sandy soil, and lots of moisture. Some, like Cyrtostachys renda, can even grow in water and prefer soaked bogs and marshland. Many grow near the beaches and as such enjoy significant sun exposure. In fact, most prefer high levels of light and only a few are said to tolerate shade and dim growing conditions. This likely explains why only a handful of species can be successfully grown as houseplants. The expensive Kentia palms (Howea forsteriana) and various species of the Chamadorea genus are among those commonly sold for the home.

Buying and Growing Palms

My experience–at least in the Pacific Northwest, has been that finding and buying palms–outside of the select few species that are usually circulated by retailers–to be a difficult one. Buying small starter specimen has been especially tough. Besides the diminutive Parlor Palm (Chamadorea elegans), most nursery palms are 3-4 feet tall and start at around $100. There is apparently no market for seedlings or immature starter plants, the assumption here being that most buyers prefer lush, mature specimen. While that may be true for the general population, palm enthusiasts, like myself, are left with few options. Mail order nurseries and popular palm sites like Real Palm Trees offer a much larger selection, but once again at a pretty hefty price. Growing palms from seed can also be a pretty challenging and time-consuming endeavor with somewhat unpredictable results.

I’ve dedicated an entire post to the difficulties in finding plants in general and I will not belabor the point here. The problem is not unique to palms, but it does feel more pronounced with them, since most are slow-growing and have limited means of propagation. Obviously, for those who live in frost free zones, this is practically a non-issue. Luckily for palms, the rest of the world is also interested, but unfortunately many plant lovers today must still jump through costly (and often blind) hoops in an effort to increase their palm collection. Hopefully we can change that soon.

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