Perhaps no other type of plant epitomizes the tropics like palms do, so it’s natural that many people are interested in decorating with indoor palm trees. Sadly though, the vast majority of all palm species are very ill-suited to indoor culture, and most of the large and seemingly inexpensive palms that are commonly offered at large nursery chain stores in the indoor section have virtually no chance at thriving in the average home. Thus, when it comes to buying indoor palm trees, you must do your homework.
Our Pick: The Best 3 Indoor Palm Trees
There are way too many palm species to discuss here that could be grown indoors or may have good potential for indoor culture. And there is not much point in discussing indoor palm trees that may be suitable for homes that have a large atrium, sun room or attached greenhouse, since those are conditions most people cannot replicate.
That’s why I decided to discuss only 3 palm species, which are arguably the absolute best for indoor culture. Unlike most palms, each of these has a demonstrated ability to tolerate low light, low humidity and low temperatures better than the rest. In short, if you don’t have experience growing palms indoors, these are the most likely to survive and thrive in your care.
Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana)
There’s little debate that the kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) is the best overall choice for an indoor palm tree. That’s why it was the subject of our recent article, All About the Kentia Palm. In case you don’t have the time to look that over, rest assured that the kentia palm is exceptional in its ability to deal with dim light, low humidity and stale air.
Give this palm strong indirect light, such as that coming from an east or west-facing window, and it should thrive for you. A south-facing window is also acceptable, so long as the light is very well filtered. The big challenge with the kentia palm is giving it as much bright indirect light as possible without burning it with direct sun. This species comes from Lord Howe island, where the temperatures are consistently cool year-round. The heat generated around a south-facing window and the direct rays of the sun will therefore quickly singe this plant.
Besides giving it strong, cool light, simply follow some general palm care guidelines. For example, all indoor palms love humidity, so mist the kentia palm frequently. This not only makes it a bit more resistant to pests but also reduces the rate at which water is lost, and can therefore help minimize leaf-tip burning, a common occurrence in palms (especially indoors) that we’ll discuss more later. In addition, resist the temptation to quickly repot the kentia. It’s usually best to leave your kentia in the pot it arrived in, at least for the current growing season. These palms, and palms in general, tend to enjoy being cramped in pots. This is in large part because pots with a high proportion of roots to soil tend to drain better and hold more oxygen. Only palms that have roots coming out of the drainage holes, or specimens that are beginning to split their pot, are in dire need of transplanting. And even when you do transplant, chose a pot that’s at most 20-30% larger than the original.
Kentia palms can and will be plagued by pests, especially if kept in dim conditions and in dry air. Thorough treatment with neem oil or horticultural oil will usually control most light to moderate infestations. However, if this plant is grown in very marginal conditions, it may be a losing battle. Also remember that kentia palms can grow large and very wide indoors, even in small pots. Make sure they have room to spread and, if space is an issue, push off repotting as long as possible to keep them from growing too big and tall.
Parlor Palm (Chamaedorea elegans)
The genus Chamaedorea is huge and consists of many species that have good potential as indoor palms. However, the most battle-tested among them to date is clearly Chamaedorea elegans, the “parlor palm.” This is easily my first pick for anyone just dipping their feet in palm culture.
This palm hails from the steamy forest understory along southern Mexico and into Guatemala, and is an unusually low-light tolerant palm. That’s why it is the only palm species on my list of 14 Truly Low Light Plants. Indeed, it is very likely this capacity for tolerating dim lighting that has made this species the most popular in homes around the world.
C. elegans can reach 3 meters high outdoors in the wild, but in the home usually remains quite small, typically well under a meter. Moreover, growth is very slow, so getting a bigger specimen to start is a good idea. This palm normally grows in its native habitat as a single-stemmed plant, but is normally sold in tightly planted composed of many small palms.
There are very few things you can do wrong with the parlor palm. Give it good indirect light (no direct light) by putting close to an east or west-facing window. A northern exposure my work if that’s all you’ve got – but put the palm right up against the window, since light levels drop off very quickly even a couple feet away. Water as you would any other houseplant, letting the surface soils dry slightly between waterings. However, it is worthwhile catering to C. elegans‘ thirst for humidity by frequently misting the leaves and the very surface of the soil. Putting the whole pot on a tray of pebbles and water is also a good idea in dry conditions. Whatever you do, do not keep the soil constantly wet or you will kill this plant from root rot.
Pests are not a common problem with vigorous plants, but weakened palms, especially those grown in dark corners and in dry conditions, can be particularly susceptible to spider mites. Spider mites are bad news for any plant, but can really tear through a parlor palm’s relatively delicate leaves. If you’ve got an infestation, try horticultural oil in concert with an improvement in growing conditions (i.e., brighter light and increased humidity).
Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa)
The lady palm is another great indoor palm tree that’s also used as a landscape palm outdoors. Rhapis excelsa has an interesting upright growth habit and beautiful, open fan-like fronds that give it an understated elegance and allow it to fit into narrower spaces compared to a kentia palm.
This species is believed to have originated somewhere in southern China and Taiwan, although this is not clear since the lady palm only exists today in cultivation, with no actual wild population. Regardless of where it came from, however, it is clear the lady palm is here to stay. R. excelsa is known for being tolerant of low humidity, relatively pest resistant, and is likewise comfortable at common room temperatures. It is also very sensitive to direct sunlight, which should be avoided indoors at all costs.
Ironically, while it burns very quickly in direct sunshine, it requires fairly bright indirect light, especially compared to the parlor palm and kentia palm. Therefore, if considering the lady palm make sure that you have a good east or west-facing window; or perhaps a shady location close to a south-facing exposure.
This species enjoys soil moisture but is sensitive to overwatering, especially if in a large pot. Follow the general rule of letting the surface soils dry slightly between waterings. Humidity cannot be too high, on the other hand, but the lady palm is quick to adapt to drier air, within reason. Mist R. excelsa daily to keep it happy and help combat a potential spider mite infestation.
Rhapis excelsa can grow up to 4 meters outdoors, but will generally get only half as large indoors, and with a young plant this will take lots of time. This is a slow-growing species and should not be fertilized aggressively. Even in good indoor conditions, it’s wise to err on the conservative side, giving this palm only 1/2 the manufacturer’s recommended fertilizer dose. For the same reason, there is no need to rush to repot. As with most palms, try to repot infrequently, only when the roots have filled the pot. When you do repot, use a high quality potting soil rich in organic matter that drains quickly.
Indoor Palm Trees, Leaf Tip Burn & Water Purity
Assuming you can provide good indirect light and follow the suggestions above, you should succeed with any or all of the indoor palm trees above. However, there are some issues common to indoor palms and many houseplants that is worth understanding.
Leaf tip burn is a common problem with a variety of plants, indoors and out. There many things that can cause this phenomena (whereby the tips of leaves will discolor and die back), but in most cases it’s usually due to underwatering, very low humidity and/or the presence (or accumulation) of dissolved solids, such as salts and hard water minerals, in tap water (or fertilizer). This in turn raises a biger issue of water quality and soil chemistry. I apologize in advance for the digression, but it’s important to understand for palms and plants in general.
All plants transpire or lose water water through microscopic pores called stomata. However, transpiration rates vary across the leaf (just like perspiration rates vary across the human body), with the highest rates occurring along the tips or margins of leaves. When water vapor is lost from a leaf, only pure water is released and everything else is left behind. It’s the reason why your glass and stemware may have white-ish residue left on them after air-drying.When water is lost at the leaves, more water is drawn up by the plant through capillary action to replace it. However, as just discussed, the salts and minerals naturally present in the water cannot turn into vapor and are deposited in the plant’s tissues. The result is a gradual accumulation and concentration of dissolved solids at the leaf tips. At some point, the concentration of these solutes reaches a point where they cause local toxicity and tissue necrosis – aka tip burn.
Humidity is a factor in tip burning because a plant’s rate of transpiration is somewhat dependent on humidity. All other things being equal, low humidity will result in a relatively high rate of transpiration. Consequently, both a high concentration of dissolved solids in tap water (or fertilizer residue in soil) and/or low humidity can exacerbate leaf tip burn. And both together can eventually cause the death of the entire plant.
If the palm is otherwise healthy, minor leaf tip burning is not a big deal, just gently clip the ends of the fronds if it bother you and increase humidity around the plant to slow water loss. However, if the entire plant is suffering from it and the palm is also growing poorly, with pale, stunted or discolored leaves, then it demands greater attention.
The easiest way to deal with tip burn accompanied by poor growth is by watering the palm with very pure water. Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about using typical home-filtered water, like that produced by your refrigerator filter or some Britta unit. I’m talking about distilled or reverse osmosis water (“RO” water is commonly available in the large purified water machines outside most grocery stores). Unlike tap water or most so-called home “filtered water”, which can have total dissolved solids ranging from 50 to 300 parts per million, RO and distilled water have virtually nothing in them. Distilled water should read “0” ppm with a hand-held tester; whereas RO water can be anywhere from 0 to 10 ppm and still be effectively pure. Most common household tap water filters simply don’t actually extract dissolved solids, and usually pick out much larger particulates or volatile compounds like chlorine. It may make your water taste better, but it’s not any different as far as the plant is concerned.
Distilled or RO water helps palms and other affected plants in two ways. First, when a plant sheds this type of water, there’s nothing to leave behind in the leaves, and hence nothing to accumulate in the leaf tips (besides fertilizer residue or other soil additives already present). This cuts down burn dramatically. Secondly, and more importantly (but not as obvious), is how this water helps restore pH balance and promotes vigor.
Most tap water (especially in the southwestand other arid/semi-arid regions of the US) tends to be alkaline and will eventually make soil alkaline too. If curious do a quick test with an aquarium pH test kit. This is a problem because most plants prefer soils that are neutral to slightly acidic (<pH 7.0). Why? Because nutrients and trace elements in the soil, even if in abundant supply, can be “locked up” at even moderately high pH values. The first thing that often gives away alkaline soils is that plants will go anemic and begin to yellow, despite fertilizing. This is one cause of iron chlorosis. In this case, it occurs because iron is locked up in these soils, and iron is the most important metal needed for chloroplast formation and function. Moreover, it’s not only iron that can be bound up in alkaline soils, various other trace elements can be rendered unavailable too. Using RO/distilled water, which is normally neutral, helps bring down soil pH. Further, because it is hyposmotic compared to the soil, it also leaches salts and hard water minerals out of the soil as it’s being watered through (water until it drains from the pot, then discard it). This both drops pH and helps keep it within a useful range for the plant. Consequently, the benefits from using this type of water go far beyond helping to minimize leaf tip burn.
“Palm leaf two” by Fil.AI under CC BY 2.0
“kentia” by Eduardo Millo under CC BY 2.0
“Chamaedorea elegans” by Forest & Kim Starr under CC BY 2.0
“Rhapis excelsa” by somone10x under CC BY 2.0
“brown leaf tips” by Jessie Hirsch under CC BY 2.0
“NOT an ATM” by Allan Ferguson under CC BY 2.0
“A sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) leaf showing the signs of interveinal chlorosis.” by Jim Conrad [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons