Beginners Guide to Sub-Tropical Palms

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This article is not intended to be an in-depth evaluation of palms for the sub-tropics. Its main aim is to provide, for the novice, an overview of those palms which are the most attractive, easily grown, and reasonably easily obtainable. The best place to start is with the two species which make up the bulk of palms grown in the sub-tropics, Archontophoenix_alexandrae (Alexandre Palm), and Dypsis_lutescens (Golden Cane Palm). A. alexandrae is the classic palm tree, a tall, elegant, feather palm, which is self cleaning, i.e. it drops its dead leaves voluntarily, you don't need a ladder and a saw to keep it tidy. It prefers a touch of shade as a youth (as do most palms), but readily adjusts to a sunny position, and requires just average water (but thrives on generous waterings). D. lutescens is a medium sized clumping palm which has a beautiful l golden tinge to its leaves and trunks. It will grow quite happily in full sun or semi-shade, however its golden tinge is enhanced by the sun. Both of these palms feature quite heavily in nearly all tropical and sub-tropical gardens, and are quite an easy way to bring a hint of the exotic to the average garden.

Large Palms:

There are several other large palms which are very well suited to sub-tropical gardens. Archontophoenix_cunninghamiana (Bangalow or Piccabeen Palm), is very similar to A. alexandrae, and is in fact normally found in sub-tropical rainforests of eastern Australia. Its main difference is a slightly heavier crown of leaves, which doesn't stand up as well to wind and dryness as A. alexandrae, so can become a bit ratty looking in exposed areas. In sheltered areas however, its fine, easy to grow, and looks great. A much larger palm is Roystonea_regia (Cuban Royal Palm), again a very attractive feather palm, but which develops a massive trunk as it gets older. More suited to gardens with a bit of space, and often seen lining driveways, as in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, as its size adds a sense of grandeur to the situation. A slightly unusual looking palm is Caryota_mitis (Clustering Fishtail Palm), which, as its common name suggests, is a clustering palm, with several trunks to about 8 metres high. The leaves, a lovely light shade of green, are made up of fish-tailed shaped leaflets. A very attractive palm for a slightly shady situation, and with its tightly clustered trunks it also makes a very good screening plant. The classic indoor palm, Howea_forsteriana (Kentia Plam), can also be grown very successfully in the garden. It has a nice green trunk, in contrast to the standard grey of most other palms, and its equally well suited to full sun or highly shaded spots, although its growth is correspondingly slower in the shade. A very commonly seen palm in the Australian sub-tropics is Syagrus_romanzoffiana (Cocos Palm), which isn't however often seen for sale. Its very hardy, and quite handsome, however due to its untidy nature, (it takes several months for the dead leaves to fall), other, more attractive palms, have supplanted it in popularity. And finally, Wodyetia_bifurcata (Foxtail Palm), is rapidly becoming a very popular palm in most sub-tropical and tropical areas, due to both its hardiness (drought and frost resistant), and its extremely attractive bushy, plume-like leaves.

Medium-sized Palms:

The palms in this section are mostly feather palms, but are slightly smaller than those listed above. They are becoming more popular now, with the trend towards smaller gardens, as they obviously don't take up as much space. Carpentaria_acuminata (Carpentaria Palm), is similar to A. alexandrae, and with a much slenderer trunk, and smaller leaves which curve back on themselves slightly. It is an extremely fast grower, (up to 2m/6ft / year), and well suited for areas which need something tropical very quickly. Ptychosperma_elegans (Solitaire Palm) is another lovely feather palm, to about 10m tall, ideal for those with limited space. Another commonly seen Ptychosperma is Ptychosperma_macarthurii (Macarthur Palm), a clumping palm, which has several dark green trunks to about 8 metres (12 feet), and bright red seeds, which give a lovely flash of colour to a garden.

Fan Palms:

These are palms with segmented leaves as wide as they are long, i.e. like an outstretched palm, and there are three which very popular in the sub-tropics. The first, and still most common, is Livistona_chinensis (Chinese Fan Palm), a large but very attractive palm in which the end third of the leaflets drops down, giving it a definite air of Victorian elegance. The second, an American palm, Washingtonia_robusta (Cotton Palm), has a much smaller head of leaves, non-drooping, but which are a lovely shiny green, and this, combined with the polished wood appearance of the petioles (leaf bases), makes it very attractive. The petioles are however, heavily spined, which could detract from it usefulness in some situations.

The third, Bismarckia_nobilis, (The Silver Fan Palm) is a bit of a newcomer, but it is fast making up for lost time. This is one of the most spectacular of all palms, with huge, rigid, silver/blue leaves, on the end of 2m long stalks. It is very hardy, (both frost, and drought tolerant) and a fast grower, its only drawback being its large size, but for those with the space, it is most highly recommended.

Understory Palms:

Many older established gardens have shady areas under trees which provide excellent conditions for under-story palms, i.e. those which like a bit of shade. They tend to like quite moist conditions, and don't like to dry out, and although generally thought of as shade lovers, most can stand quite a bit of sun.

Some of the most attractive under-story species are the clustering palms. Far and away the most commonly seen palm of this type is the ubiquitous Dypsis_lutescens (Golden Cane Palm), which ignores several other equally attractive species. A very similar palm, but smaller and more delicate in its growth and habit, is Dypsis_baronii. It produces a nice elegant clump of vegetation, although with a more yellowish tinge and not so much gold as its bigger brother.

Areca_triandra, also reasonably common, grows to about 3 metres (9 feet) high, and is a beautiful light green colour. Its cousin, Areca_vestiaria, while being a bit slow growing, has a similar arrangement of bright orange trunks. There is also a form with a distinctly red tinge which is becoming more widely known.

A really lovely under story palm is Licuala_ramsayi. This is a fan palm with almost circular leaves, but with narrow segments removed, which gives it a unique profile when viewed from beneath against a clear sky. Again, it is unfortunately rather slow growing, but this is more than outweighed by its beautiful leaves. This is one species which definitely doesn't like much sun as a youth, although as it gets older it becomes more resilient. And finally, there is Phoenix_roebelenii (Dwarf Date Palm), a dainty and elegant palm, which has shiny, dark green, and slightly drooping leaflets. Rarely more than a couple of metres high, it is becoming extremely popular in sub-tropical gardens. Its only drawback is the nasty spines which cover the first third of the petiole. This palm can also be grown in full sun.

Indoor Palms:

These palms can also be grown quite successfully outside in a sheltered shady spot, but because of their small size and suitability for indoor growing, they have been separated out into a distinct group. The champion of the indoor palms has to be Chamaedorea_elegans (Parlour Palm), with its miniature, almost bonsaied appearance, and its incredible resilience to indoor conditions. I have a plant which has been indoors for the last 2 years, with only occasional spells outside in the rain, and no sunlight at all (although its in a bright position), and it is doing extraordinarily well. A larger and leafier plant is Chamaedorea_cataractarum (Mexican Hat Palm). This is a trunk-less, clustering palm which can eventually get to 2 metres (6 feet) high if given good conditions, and plenty of space for its roots (i.e. outside or in a very large pot). An unusual curiosity is Chamaedorea_metallica (Metallic Palm), which has a very unusual metallic tinge to its entire leaves, i.e. no leaflets, and is quite tiny as palms go, about 300mm (12 ins) across, and eventually up to 500 mm (18 ins) high. There are several palms called Bamboo Palms, however the most commonly grown is Chamaedorea_seifrizii. These have multiple, tall, thin stems, which closely resemble bamboo, and they can get quite tall, up to 3 metres (10 feet) high. These palms also make very good garden specimens as well. One of the most famous of the indoor palms is Rhapis_excelsa (Lady Palm), a clustering palm with long brown stems, covered with well spaced leaves about the size and shape of an outstretched hand. It has a very elegant appearance, and while it can form quite large clumps outside, it is usually fairly slow growing indoors.

Unusual Palms:

For some reason Madagascar has produced some of the most commonly grown palms seen today e.g. Dypsis_lutescens (Golden Cane Palm), but it is also the home to several very unusual species of which any one could form the focal point of an average sized garden. Dypsis_decaryi (Triangle Palm), is one of the most stunning of these species. It forms a very distinctive triangular shaped crown of greenish-grey, highly arched leaves which is without peer in the palm or the plant world. Often seen in mixed plantings, it is however much more suited to being a solitary specimen plant, where its unique shape can be fully appreciated. There are also several Madagascan species which have very a distinct reddish colouration to the crown-shaft, and are often lumped together under the name Redneck Palm. The most commonly found is Dypsis_leptocheilos which is a medium sized feather palm and the fastest grower of the group.

The Comores Islands, which are close to Madagascar, have also produced several very interesting palms. The most commonly found is Hyophorbe_lagenicaulis (Bottle Palm), which as its common name suggests, produces a bottle shaped trunk, topped with a crown of very severely back curved leaves. This is a small to medium sized palm, to about 4 metres (12 feet) high, and a 2 metre (6 feet) spread, so it can fit into even the smallest garden. A closely related species is Hyophorbe_verschaffeltii (Spindle Palm), which isn't as distinctive but still has a rather different appearance to the "standard" palm. Its trunk develops into a spindle shape, narrow at the base and crown-shaft, but with a very even diameter along its length.

The only commonly grown palm from one of Australia's nearest neighbours, New Caledonia, is Chambeyronia_macrocarpa, a large tree palm, whose new leaf is s spectacular dark red colour. The palm is fairly similar to A. alexandrae in appearance, but with thicker, shinier leaflets. It is slower growing, but it is still a very worthwhile addition to the garden, and it is becoming much more commonly available.

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