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Palms, the Journal of the IPS

PALMS 101

Palms 101
The International Palm Society (IPS) has prepared this guide covering a variety of basic palm information for members and non-members that are new to palm culture. We have tried to keep the level of scientific terms to a minimum and although you will encounter a few, don’t be scared, a little knowledge will go a long way in your enjoyment of this extraordinary plant family. You are encouraged to use the resources of this site, palms.org and for a more interactive experience our forum site, palmtalk.org. The forum site is a place where all levels of palm knowledge are welcome and members there will answer any question you might have, no matter how elementary it may seem. This site also includes an extensive photograph gallery of different palm species giving you a good idea of what size and shapes interest you. Becoming a member of the IPS helps promote the study and preservation of endangered palm species, delivers to you our quarterly publication ‘Palms’, and allows greater access to our online websites. We’d love to have you.

About Palms
Why are the names of palms so difficult?
Where do palms grow?
Palm facts
What palms should I plant?
Do palms need special Light Requirements? 
What about temperature?
Are there special soil requirements for planting?
Moisture requirements
What fertilizer should I use?
How often should I fertilize?
Should I prune my palms?
How close should I plant my palms?
How do I start palms from Seeds?
Do palms attract insects?
Do palms get diseases?
What are some great Palm books? 
Where can I buy palms?

About Palms
Experts in Taxonomy (the science dealing with the description, identification, naming, and classification of organisms) have stated that there are about 2500 different species of palms in the world. The palm family has been divided into subfamilies, tribes, subtribes, and genera. To the beginner these classifications may seem overwhelming, but as your knowledge grows they will gain more importance.

Why are the names of palms so difficult?
This is a great frustration to beginning palm gardeners when they are around growers and experienced palm people discussing palms. There are a few palms that have common names, like King, Queen, Foxtail, Christmas, and Sealing Wax, but because there are so many varieties, it is impossible to give common names to palms that are used all the same way around the world. When purchasing a palm, having the biological name, (Latin), will benefit you greatly with Nurserymen. There are a couple of excellent books that will help you learn the names of palms, Genera Palmerum by Dransfield/Uhl, An Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms by Robert Lee Riffle, Paul Craft and Scott Zona. (Both available through this website). Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce them correctly at first, you’ll get the hang of it after a while. These references can be found or linked to on this website, palms.org.  

Where do palms grow?
Palms are native to every continent in the world except Antarctica. They can be found in arid climates, fresh and salt water swamps, grasslands, costal plains and rain forests. Some palms can even tolerate freezing temperatures for a short period of time so, no matter where you live, (almost), you can find a palm that will grow well in your garden. There are ‘Hardiness’ zone map links available under the About Palms menu heading, so please consult these links.  

Palm facts

  • They can be very small as a ground cover.
  • They can be very tall (over 200 feet)
  • They can be a solitary trunk.
  • They can have multiple trunks. (clumping)
  • They all have flowers generally not larger than 1” in diameter but normally smaller and are on a cluster (called Inflorescences). One type of palm has the largest flower cluster in the world.
  • The Fruit (seeds) comes from the female flower and can be as small as a ¼ inch to the world’s largest seed which can weigh as much as 50 lbs. (Lodoicea Maldivica) sometimes referred to as the “double coconut”.
  • Some palms flower once and then die, (monocarpic), a consideration when you plant that type.
  • One type of palm (Raffia) has the longest leaf in plant kingdom. (80 feet)
  • Trunk diameters can range from ½” to 6’.
  • Some palms have stilt roots that can grow from the trunk of the palm as large as 6-8 feet above the ground. (Careful were you plant this type)

These are just a few of the interesting facts about palms which can help you choose a palm for your garden and win a few trivia bets over a beer.

What palms should I plant?
This can be one of the most interesting challenges in your palm garden. Depending on the size of your property the choices are endless for what you can plant. Small palms range in size from a few inches to 10 feet, medium palms from 10-50 feet and large palms can get over 100 feet. The leaves can be very fine (pinnate) or fan like (palmate), leaf stems can be smooth or have spines, the sheath (the part of the leaf that grasps the trunk) forms a crown at the top of some palms and can show a variety of colors from white, red, purple blue, and all shades of green. Some palms have only a single trunk and others can have 20 or more trunks. Some people just plant one type of genus (same family) or some people like palms that have all fan like leafs. Some like palms with colorful crown shafts so, with 2500 species it can be a difficult but a fun choice. The real answer is plant what you like!

One of the most common palms you see planted and is mistakenly call the “areca palm.” This is a clumping (produces many trunks) palm that is used as a screen or hedge, it real name is Dypsis lutescens. Other palms that are quite common are:

Scientific Names  Pronunciation of Scientific Names Common Names
Archontophoenix alexandrae Ahr-kont'-o-FEE-nix  a-lek-ZAN-dree  Alexander, King Palm
Cyrtostachys renda    Seer-toe-STAIK-iss  REN-da  Sealing Wax Palm
Dypsis leptocheilos  DIP-sis   lep-toe-KY-los      Teddy Bear Palm
Adonidia merrillii A-do-nid-ia  mer-RIL-lee-eye   Manila Palm
Dictyosperma album Dik'-tee-o-SPURM-a  AL-bum Princess, Hurricane Palm
Caryota urens  Kar-ee-O-ta  YOO-renz          Fishtail Palm
Wodyetia bifurcata Wod-YET-ee-a  by-foor-KHT-a Foxtail Palm
Dypsis decaryi  DIP-sis de-KAHR-ee-eye    Triangle Palm
Ptychosperma macarthurii   Ty-ko-SRUM-a  mak-AHRTH-'-ree-eye   MacArthur Palm
Roystonea regia  Roy-STON-ee-a  REE-jee-a    Cuban Royal Palm
Pritchardia martii   Prit-CHAHRD-ee-a  MAHRT-ee-eye  Loulu Palm
Hyophorbe verschaffeltii Hy-o-FOR-bee  ver-sha-FELT-tee-eye    Spindle Palm
Hyophorbe lagenicaulis Hy-o-FOR-BEE  lag'-e-ni-KAW-lis   Bottle Palm
Latania loddigesii  La-TAN-ee-a  lo-di-GAI-zee-eye    Blue Latan

You are encouraged to seek out local botanic gardens and areas of major public plantings to get an idea of palms in your area and to see the relative size of particular palms.

Do palms need special Light Requirements?
Palms, like other plants have specific light requirements. Some need shade as their native habitat was deep canopied forest and direct sun will burn their leaves. Other need direct sun to grow their best and others need a mixture of both, shade when small and sun when tall. Take your time when selecting a palm and if you have questions, find out what IPS Affiliate is closest to you and take the time to send an inquiry. The IPS Affiliate chapters are located on this site, so check them out. 

What about temperature?
Most palms are from tropical and sub-tropical regions, but many areas have particular micro-climates which allows for a more diverse variety of palms that can be grown. Many palm enthusiasts who live in marginal climatic areas like to ‘zone push’ to test the limits of particular species. Again, check the climate zone maps for more information. 

Are there special soil requirements for planting?
Depending on your location, you may want to investigate geological information to determine what type of soil is particular to your area. This will tell you what, if any, soil amendments or extra trace elements that need to be added. Again, consult your local IPS Affiliate if you need more information.
 
Be prepared to dig a hole a bit larger than the width and depth of the pot the palm is in. Make sure that the bottom of the trunk is flush with the finished ground level. Palms do not like to have their trunks covered with soil. Fill in around the root ball with loose soil and do not aggressively pack it in as looser soil allows for the new roots to travel easily through it. It will take anywhere from 3 -120 days for the new roots to develop. Some people put a little fertilizer in the bottom of the hole covered with a bit of soil to provide nutrients as the roots grow. Some people just plant the palm without the addition of any fertilizer. It’s your choice and there are no hard fast rules. You do want to make sure that the hole you dig drains well, as the majority of palms don’t like their roots to be wet unless they are a variety that originate in swampy, tidal or lake environments. Keep the newly planted palm well watered for the first couple of weeks.

Moisture requirements
Depending on where you live, you may or may not have to add supplemental water to your palms. You probably already know your irrigation requirements, so be sure they don’t dry out.  Palms do not have tap roots, so their root structure is very shallow and they require a regular application of water to remain healthy. Know where your palm’s original habitat was and it will give you clues to its moisture needs.

What fertilizer should I use?

Research has indicated that palms benefit from fertilizer that is in the 3-1-3 ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Some gardeners like to apply mulch around the palms to keep the weeds down, as the mulch breaks down and also supplies nutrients to the soil, so it’s a double benefit. When you apply the fertilizer spread it at the drip line of the fronds, these are where the new roots are and will take the up the nourishment faster than the older roots at the base of the palm. Again, consult your local governmental or geological resources to determine your specific soil types.

Here are a couple of things to consider when fertilizing;

  • Never fertilize on dry soil as it can lead to plant burn and death. Keep the soil moist.
  • Don't over-fertilize as this can lead to plant injury. Follow the manufacturer’s directions. If the directions lead to problems, use less
  • Don't throw granular fertilizer down the crown of the plant.
  • Don't throw all the fertilizer in one pile at the base of the plant. Scatter it.
  • Don't throw the fertilizer against the trunk of the plant in a big pile as this can lead to necrosis or scaring of the trunk.
  • Buy a fertilizer with supplemental magnesium and calcium.
    You can purchase fertilizer from a variety of sources, even on-line. Seek out information from your local or nearest Affiliate, they can help you.

How often should I fertilize?
Some people feed their palms on a regular schedule every quarter, some every six months, some on an ‘as need’ basis, and some not at all. This is up to you. You may just want to feed your palms when they show a need for food, they will tell you when by how they look.

Should I prune my palms?
The best course of action is to wait until the entire leaf turns brown if you must trim your palm. As the older leaf turns brown it translocates nutrients to the newer leaves. By cutting off leaves that still have some green on them you are robbing the palm of some nutrients as the green leaf can still photosynthesize. Never cut the growing point of a palm, you will most likely kill it. Seek help if you have a question.

How close should I plant my palms?

The answer is really driven by the adult size of the palm or if you want to feature that special palm in your garden. A lot of gardeners like to plant 3 of the same palms in a grouping. Large palms can have leafs and petioles that are 20 feet long so one palm will span 40 feet tip to tip, You need to take into consideration the total span of your palms mature size when spacing them. In general medium to large palms should be spaced about every 10-20 feet. Palms can be planted a lot closer together if you want to create a hedge or screen using smaller solitary or clumping palms. Check out reference materials for photos of how palms look in the landscape and in habitat.

How do I start palms from Seeds?

Starting your own palms from seed can be very rewarding and fun.  See the attached, ‘ A Practical Guide to Germinating Palm Seeds,’ to this guide. It’s always a good idea to keep track of the species you have planted, whatever the method you choose. This will help you identify them long after you’ve forgotten what you planted.

Do palms attract insects?
The short answer is yes. Some will not hurt the palm (ants) others can be quite a nuisance. Typical insect problems are scale, mealy bugs, aphids, caterpillars and spider mites just to name a few. Each type of insect will require a special insecticide, your local garden store can tell you what to use.
If the palm is not treated for some of these insects it can die, so give your palms regular inspections. Most good palm books will have a section (description and pictures) on what these insects do to the palm so you will have an idea of what you are up against.

Do palms get diseases?

Some diseases will only infect certain types of palms and others can infect all types. Most diseases are either a fungus or a mold. If not identified early they can diminish the palm’s beauty and in some cases certain diseases may be fatal, as there is no known treatment. A few of these harmful organisms are Lethal yellowing, Fusarium wilt, Ganoderma rott, Leaf spot fungi, Sooty mold and Phytophthora bud rot. There are a great many resources available on-line, so take the time to investigate to find your particular problem

What are some great Palm books?

The IPS carries a great selection of palm books that you can purchase, some for a discount.  This is a great opportunity to begin a home reference. One book “The Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms”, (mentioned earlier), It is probably the most common one found on a palm gardener’s book shelf. It contains over 600 color pictures as well as descriptions of the palms. Many of the photographs are from IPS member palm gardens or as they appear in habitat. 

Where can I buy palms?

Take advantage of this website, (palms.org), the forum website, (palmtalk.org),  and local Affiliates, they can help you locate what you’re looking for.     

 

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