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Green Thoughts: Small and mighty palms

While many arecaceae are notable for their impres­sive height, characterised by a solitary, unbranched stem surmounted by a crown of fronds, and often producing massive seeds – the coco de mer has seed pods weighing up to 30 kilograms – oth­er palms are neat and shrub-like, often denizens of the understory and able to survive with limited access to sunlight. In fact, their diversity is highest in tropical rainforests.

GardeningGreen-Thoughts
By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 10 November 2019, 03:00PM


Small Palms

Lady palm (rhapis)

Of all the smaller palms, the lady palm (rhapis) is probably the easiest to culti­vate. It grows in clumps with slender, fibrous and hairy trunks. Often it is seen in garden centres with its root ball wrapped in plastic, a testimony to its durability.

It is a small tree, at most three metres tall, but its great virtue is that it can survive in areas of deep shade where other sun-loving palms are difficult to grow. It will even function as a house plant, provided it can – in common with all indoor plants – be given spells in the open air. And its glossy, dark green, fan-shaped foliage is very eye-catching when rhapis is cul­tivated in groups. These colonies look especially attractive when situated next to white masonry.

The only important requirement is permanently moist soil: if allowed to dry out, some of the fronds will turn brown and lifeless. Not only is it use­ful for covering up those bare patches in the garden, it is also one of the few palms that can tolerate conditions in­doors. Rhapis can be propagated by rooted offshoots.

Fan palm (licuala)

Less durable but even more striking is the genus of fan palms or licuala. There are about a hundred species, and some of them can be found in your local plant nursery. They have huge, deeply-pleated, glossy leaves with notched edges – nearly circular in shape. The commonest is probably L. grandis, rec­ognisable by its deeply notched leaves. L. orbiculis has more symmetrical leaves and is one of the most beautiful of all the small palms.

All licualas will grow in sun but prefer filtered shade. What they cannot handle is an exposed position: the frag­ile and sail-like leaves need protection from winds.

Clump palms

Red lipstick palm (cyrtostachys)

Many palms are multi-stemmed. One of the most distinctive is the so-called lipstick or red sealing wax palm. Cyrto­stachys has stems that sprout directly from the ground, and both these crown shafts and the leaf sheaths are a surprising and beautiful shade of red – hence the name.

Ramrod-straight stems – and there may be as many as 20 or more – grow close together in a dense clump. As a result, this beautiful but slow-growing palm is often grown in a large con­tainer, though it is better suited to open ground, where it will attain a much larger size – in ideal conditions up to ten metres tall. In the wild it does best in marshy ground.

As with the lady palm, it will not survive droughts, and even a short period without water will lead to dieback.

Golden cane palm (dypsis lutescens)

Another multi-stemmed palm is the golden cane palm (dypsis lutescens), per­haps the variety most frequently used as a garden presence in Southeast Asia. More open in form than cyrtostachys, its stems grow into substantial, bamboo-like, ringed canes.

The feathery foliage which sprouts from near the top of each stem is light green, but in sunny conditions it can turn an attractive golden yellow. Ex­tremely hardy, it is often cultivated as a pot plant where, in the right location, it will retain its golden fronds. It will also survive periods indoors.

Macarthur palm (ptychosperma macarthurii)

Two more palms deserve a mention as possible subjects for the tropic garden. Both the Macarthur palm (ptychos­perma macarthurii) and livistona are medium-sized trees, reaching about four metres in height. Superficially, the Macarthur palm’s habit resembles that of the golden cane palm, for it also grows in clumps of smooth, greenish-grey, narrow trunks, each with a crown of darker green leaves.

While the foliage is less elegant, this palm does produce long panicles of white flowers which are followed by strings of yellow fruits which then turn an attractive glossy red. Much favoured by birds. A suitable container subject, it is consequently a familiar presence on terraces and patios.

Fountain palm (livistona chinensis)

Livistona is a genus of palms native mostly to Australia (L. australis). On the other hand, livistona chinensis comes from Japan and southern China. Culti­vated as an ornamental in gardens, it produces bright green, fan-shaped leaves which radiate from a solitary source and droop elegantly downwards – hence its common name “fountain palm”.

The trunk is rough textured, and its fruits, which hang in dense clusters, are an attractive shade of blue. Its mod­est height makes it ideal for the smaller garden, where it will accept partial shade or full sun. It is one of the easiest of all palms to grow.


Patrick has been writing for thirteen years about gardening in Phuket and allied topics. If you have horticultural or environmental concerns, please con­tact him at drpaccampbell@gmail.com. Many of his earlier creative and academic publications can be found at Wordpress: Green Galoshes.

Patrick will shortly be publishing ‘The Tropic Gardener’, an indispensable guide to Southeast Asia’s flowering plants, based on his experience of gardening in Phuket.

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