At one time in history, back in the Victorian era, your social stature was attached to the houseplants gracing your residence. If you were well-respected and rich, tropical palms could be seen through your windows, standing next to the sitting room sofa or bookcases in the den. Although this centuries-old social barometer is irrelevant in the 21st century, we can thank the Victorians for first experimenting with various palms as houseplants. The ones that prospered inside with low light, warm temperatures and low humidity have proved to be great modern day houseplants for everyone, regardless of social stature.
Kentia palm is graceful, low-maintenance and has a tolerance for neglect.
Photo Credit: James Burghardt
Often seen as seedlings in florist gift containers, the elegant parlor palm grows into a lush, well-behaved houseplant.
Photo Credit: Forest and Kim Starr
Lady palm handles low light, slightly dry soil and rare fertilizing – perfect for a busy household.
Photo Credit: James Burghardt
Many palms are marketed today as houseplants, but some commonly potted plants are high-maintenance or simply not long for this world in a pot by the end table. You see, not all palms are created equally. The perfect houseplant can’t grow too tall or quickly, shouldn’t be hazardous to children and pets, and isn’t meant to block the view from the picture window. A good houseplant should also survive from an occasional lack of water. Thus, large palms should be avoided for indoor use, as should those species that require lots of hot, direct sunlight. Since our homes are adjusted comfortably in temperature and humidity, any heat- and steam-loving palms from the rainforest won’t fit the bill either. Thankfully, a handful of great houseplant palms exists, all worth your time and investment to find, purchase, grow and enjoy.
Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana). If you ever come across a kentia palm at the garden center, grab it! This is arguably the finest houseplant palm in the world, featuring graceful, drooping, dark green, feathery fronds and a tolerance for neglect. Of course, a bright indirect exposure with appropriate watering is best for kentia palm, but this species is especially forgiving, so you can use it in a dark corner, as well as a bright room. Just keep the soil moist in summer and slightly drier in winter. Don’t worry, this is a slow-growing plant, so it won’t get all jungle-like and hide your desk or entertainment center after a year. Kentia palm is a poised vase- or fountain-shaped specimen, which is why you often see it used in the finest commercial lobbies – a reason why the plant is sometimes called “the hotel palm.”
Parlor Palms (Chamaedorea). Sometimes collectively called Victorian parlor palms or bamboo palms, members of the palm genus Chamaedorea are typically fine choices for houseplants. Even though a parlor palm fares slightly better in higher humidity, it’s forgiving if the potting soil is evenly moist and the light is indirect. So many species of parlor palms do quite well in the home, providing a nice variety of shapes and forms. Need an upright, slender, clustered-stem houseplant with feathery, arching green leaves? Try the bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii), which grows to 10 feet tall but only about 3 feet wide. Prefer a robust, rounded, short palm? Then grow the neanthe belle or elegant parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans), or try the clumping cat palm (Chamaedorea cataractarum). Even plant lovers who are bored with the common palm should look into the fishtail parlor palm (Chamaedorea metallica), with its fishtail-like wider fronds of metallic silvery green.
Lady Palms (Rhapis). In pleasant contrast to the aforementioned feathery palms, lady palms’ fronds are more rounded with wide, rectangular segments that look like fans. Three species of lady palms are widely used in home and office interiors: Rhapis excelsa, Rhapis multifida and Rhapis humilis. While the first two species grow to about 5 feet tall, the latter can tower as high as 12 feet, so leave that palm for the cathedral or tray ceiling rooms!
All lady palms are generally low-maintenance. They need low light and a humus-rich sandy potting soil to dry out between waterings, and they excel when rarely fertilized. If you just won the lottery, seek out the cultivars with variegated foliage – they’re a sight to behold and quite exquisite! Many of them have hard-to-pronounce Japanese names, but who cares about pronunciation when you can marvel at the gorgeous dark green leaves with crisp bands or polka dots of white or yellow?
Many people love the idea of having a palm tree in their home, but they never try it because they think caring for one is too complicated. When the right palm is selected for your home’s conditions, it’s really not as difficult as you might expect. So fight that temptation to waste your money on a plastic-branched, nylon-leaved palm tree at the furniture warehouse, and give the real thing a try! I’d much rather maintain a beautiful palm houseplant just by watering it – as opposed to dusting fake leaves with household cleaners. Wouldn’t you?