The magnificent parlor palm has been a popular house plant for well over a hundred years. It’s still a main contender with its simple elegance and vibrant green foliage. I have long been a lover of palm trees: for me, they create the epitome of paradise and signify a much greener, richer, and tropical world, ripe for discovery.
A Most Elegant House Plant
The parlor palm gained its common name during the Victorian era. At that time, many a splendid parlor housed these delicate, feathery palm trees. All the richest and most prosperous houses showcased their palm collections, which signified that they were doing rather well for themselves in society. (And oh, how they liked to show it!)
We still appreciate this plant’s slender, erect habit today. The rich green, arching leaves of the parlor palm—Chamaedorea elegans in its full botanical name. As a nation, we’ve fallen in love with bringing the best of the outside world inside. Thankfully, the days are long past when only the rich could afford to fill their homes with wonderful and diverse plant life.
House plants don’t only look good: they also help to clean the air we breathe in every day. We now know that palms specifically target certain poisonous gases such as formaldehyde, benzene and carbon monoxide from the air around us and remove their toxins.
Along with a little history, I shall touch on the subjects of how to choose your palm, and give guidelines of how to care for them. I’ll discuss any problems to watch out for and recommend a whole host of companion plants that can help you achieve a more healthy and green home space.
A Little History of the Parlor Palm
The parlor palm grows natively as an understory plant in Southern Mexico’s mixed forests, lowlands and mountain forests. It also grows in Guatemala’s rainforest. It’s a very slow-growing palm which will reach 2-3 meters when fully grown. This relatively small and slender tree comes under the genus of Chamaedorea. It contains over 100 lower canopy species that have adapted to a wide range of climates and temperatures.
The Parlor Palm—An Endangered Species?
The Chamaedorea species are among the world’s most endangered palm trees. This is mainly due to being one of the most commonly cultivated palms in the world. Parlor palm seeds, stems, and leaves are under threat from over-harvesting. An estimated 400 million seeds are exported throughout the world every year, most of these from Mexico. This has obviously had a devastating impact on its cultivation and its rainforest habit.
In the wild, parlor palm leaves (and others in the Chamaedorea family), are harvested and used as Xate (pronounced Shatay). The fronds are used throughout the world in the floral industry, especially in funeral flowers and Palm Sunday decor. One of the benefits of using these fronds is that they can last up to an impressive 40 days after being cut.
Planting your Parlor Palm
How to Choose your Parlor Palm
There are a large number of plant nurseries to choose from nowadays, with some really excellent ones online. Always look for good feedback reviews when ordering plants without actually seeing them. If you’re selecting plants in a garden center, here are few things that you need to look for:
- Make sure that the leaves are bright green with no brown tips
- Check that the compost isn’t too spongy or too dry, and that the plant isn’t pot-bound
- Have a good look at the leaf shafts and undersides for pest evidence
- Only buy a plant that looks healthy and well cared for
Where to Plant: Inside or Outside?
The Chamaedorea family is well renowned for its houseplant qualities. Should you live in zones 10-12 with a warm sub-tropical climate, you can keep your parlor palm outside. Plant it in a slightly shaded and sheltered spot with protection against strong winds.
In all other areas, keep your palm in a pot indoors. Position it where it’ll ideally catch early morning and late afternoon sun, but away from direct sunlight. Remember that we’re trying to replicate the palm’s natural growing environment.
The Perfect Soil for Your Parlor Palm
In the wild, parlor palms grow in acidic, peaty forest floor soil that contains a lot of organic matter. If planting your palm outside, ensure that you’re not planting into clay, as they dislike alkaline soil. Incorporate some peat-based soil conditioners into your planting hole.
Should your soil need extra drainage, add some horticultural grit or a small amount of shingle. This will provide extra drainage, allowing water to pass through the soil and not “puddle”.
Temperature and Humidity Requirements
Keep your parlor palm warm, ideally between 68F-80F, to guarantee that it’ll grow into a happy, healthy plant. The minimum tolerated temperature is around 50F, but this won’t promote new growth. In fact, it may cause it undue stress.
Although these palms are versatile, they grow best in medium to high humidity levels. Mist your plant with water from time to time—more often when the temperature gets really hot.
TLC for your Parlor Palm
Watering and Feeding
Throughout the growing season, you’ll need to water your parlor palm regularly. Let the compost dry out for a few days, and then water again. Give it some diluted house plant feed once a month through the summer to aid in new growth.
In the winter, the palm will only need watering once every two to three weeks, and doesn’t need feeding.
Your palm doesn’t need any regular pruning as it pretty much takes care of itself. Remove dead lower fronds from the plant as needed.
In infancy, your Palm can be potted-on every year to allow for new growth. Do so when the plant isn’t in full growing mode, so any time but the summer months. Its root systems are quite weak and really dislike any disturbance, so be careful not to damage them when handling.
Once the plant is fully mature and reaches a height of around 2 meters and spread of a meter, it will be quite happy to stay in its pot. Only re-pot if the compost has turned spongy. This commonly means that it has no nutritional value left and needs to be replaced.
Plant Division and Propagation
You can buy seeds to grow this lovely palm, but getting the germination just right can be a long and painful process! Sometimes it can take up to a whole year to take place, so in all honesty I’d opt for just buying another plant.
You can divide plants when they’re in their winter dormancy, but as previously mentioned, the roots are very fragile and easily damaged. If you do manage to divide your palm, any well-drained, peat-based compost with a little vermiculite in it is a good choice of growing medium for potting up.
Common Pests and Diseases
Parlor palms are considered some of the most versatile and tolerant plants with very few problems or maintenance requirements. I’ve listed a couple of possible problems below:
- Leaf tip browning and discoloration: your plant needs more humidity and frequent misting
- Yellow leaves: this happens when the root ball has dried out too much, so soak the root in water and re-pot
There are a few pests that could cause a problem for your palm, namely spider mites, scale, mealybugs and thrip. Spider mite residue shows itself as a sticky web-like substance. Your plant will be susceptible to these mites if the air is too warm and dry. Wash the leaves with a diluted liquid detergent and spray with a suitable insecticide.
Scale can affect the entire plant, but will be easily spotted on leaves as brown bumps and discoloration. These are quite hardy insects, but can be taken care of by washing the leaves with a diluted liquid detergent. When dry, spray with a horticultural oil to avoid them sticking on.
Mealybugs love to hide on the palm’s bamboo-like stems and feed on the leaves. They’re tiny fluffy bugs that almost look like cotton wool. Deal with these by washing the leaves and stem with a diluted liquid detergent and spraying with a suitable insecticide to avoid further infestations.
Thrip are tiny, black, flying insects whose larvae live on the soil’s surface of the soil. These bugs feed on palm leaves and leave a silvery streaked marking. Thrip damage is worst in hot, dry conditions, so keeping adequate humidity can help avoid the problem. Wash the leaves with a diluted liquid detergent and continue to keep a watchful eye. Spraying the plant with a horticultural oil can help to eradicate the problem.
Companion Plants for your Parlor Palm
There’s a whole host of tropical foliage plants that complement the parlor palm’s slender, arching form. I’ve listed a few of my favorites below, all of which are beautiful and widely available:
- Kentia Palm – A large, slow-growing evergreen palm tree originating from Australia with wide feather-like fronds, also known as Howea forsteriana.
- Cheese plant – Monstera delicosa is a favorite houseplant and native to Central and South American rainforests. With large, glossy, palmate leaves, this is a true beauty. Can grow to 20 feet.
- Sweetheart Plant – An elegant, climbing plant usually bought growing up a moss pole. Lovely heart-shaped leaves, good for a shaded corner to add interest at height. Philodendron scandens.
- Calathea orbifolia – Also known as the peacock plant. A very popular house plant at the moment, it loves a humid, warm environment. Luxurious, slightly curled ovate leaves with subtle color stripes.
I hope this guide has inspired the green-fingered among you to start experimenting with foliage and texture inside your homes. Gardening isn’t just about the great outdoors. With relatively little cost and a little kit of knowledge, everyone can gain from creating a green and healthier living space. In my humble opinion, a parlor palm is the perfect plant to get you started!