The broadleaf lady palm (Rhapis excelsa) is a small cultivated palm tree species native to regions of Southern China and Taiwan. Unlike many tropical palms, however, you won’t find this species growing in the wild.
This plant was first imported by the Japanese from China in the 17th Century. They did so specifically for decorating palace gardens of their last Military Government, Tokugawa Shogunate, between 1603 and 1867. Soon after, the lady palm’s popularity spread throughout Europe, and then into the United States. In Japan, the Lady Palm has been grown as a houseplant for over 500 years!
Its botanical name is Rhapsis excelsa. This is taken from the Ancient Greek “Rhapsis” meaning “needle”, giving reference to its slender palmate leaves.
Let’s take a look at why the palm continuse to be one of the best known and widely planted tree families. We’ll look into the care and maintenance of the cultivated Rhapsis excelsa and find out just why we have a long-lasting love of this eastern species.
History of Tropical Palm Trees as Houseplants
The popularity of growing tropical palm trees indoors goes way back to the Victorian era. Many houses at the time were designed to incorporate bay windows or sun rooms, with the direct purpose of bringing nature inside the home. Bay windows collect light from three exposures, providing balanced light, moderating room temperatures, and increasing overall humidity. All these factors allowed tropical plants to thrive, mimicking their natural habitat.
Victorians had a passion for horticulture, and an astounding repertory of plants. This was an important part of 19th Century life, and often took over much of their home. It was commonplace to find a huge tropical palm set amongst the mahogany grandeur of many a Victorian parlor. One of these plants’ greatest qualities was they were quite comfortable growing in a semi-shaded position. As a result, there weren’t many places they didn’t thrive.
Today, unlike the Victorians, we may not have homes built for towering tropical palms, with high ceilings or bay windows. That said, there are many suitable smaller palms that can add a rich flush of foliage and a natural focal point to your home. Fortunately, the Rhapsis excelsa lady palm is one of the best examples.
The Rhapsis excelsa is a sculptured beauty and one of around ten small and elegant “fan” palms in the Rhapsis genus. This genus is part of the huge Arecaceae plant family, whose members include many commercially important species. These include the European fan palm “Chamaerops humilis”, the Date Palm “Phoenix dactylifera” and the well-recognised Areca Palm, botanically named “Dupsis lutescens”.
Our lovely lady palm is a multi-stemmed specimen with a sheathed fibrous base. It grows a series of clump-forming, dense stalks, looking much like bamboo. Each stalk has clumps of glossy, palmate fronds divided into broadly ribbed segments. These in turn form several different layers of foliage.
A mature plant will have over a dozen layers of thick, rich, bright green, tooth-edged, glossy leaves and reach a height of up to 4 feet when grown indoors.
Outdoor grown plants have the potential to reach a much higher 4 metres tall. As such, they’re often grown as a decorative palm in tropical, subtropical ,and temperate gardens. Their leaves—or fronds—grow upright in a fan pattern on long slender stems. In contrast, all new foliage grows from its fibrous base. It has a rhizomatous root system, growing thick horizontal underground stems which readily spread and make plant division pretty easy.
Flowers and Fruits
All Rhapsis palms are dioecious species, meaning they have distinct male and female plants. Flowers are produced on a small inflorescence at the plant apex. These flowers are spirally arranged on the stem, fused at the base, yellow in colour, and fleshy in texture. Their fruits are fleshy and white.
Easy to Grow
With their slow-growing nature, lady palm trees are surprisingly easy to grow. Unlike their towering cousins, their compact size allows them far more versatility when it comes to finding the perfect growing spot in your home. Their bluntleaves and multi-stemmed form looks perfectly at home in your average sized room. No need for that bay window and nine foot ceiling then!
Lady Palm Cultivars and How They Came to Life
The Japanese have had a fascination with the Rhapsis excelsa palm for over three hundred years, since they were first won over by its graceful form and bright, lush foliage. Over time, they began growing and cultivating dwarfed varieties. Although slow-growing, these often lived to 100 years old and were handed down through generations.
The cultivars available today are as a direct result of their-green fingered enthusiasm, and celebrated as the finest horticultural treasures.
There are over a hundred cultivars available. All are quite hardy, tolerant of low light levels, low levels of humidity, and varying temperatures. As a rule, they’ll survive in temperatures over 8C/46F, though their growth rate will slow down as the temperature drops.
The Rhapsis excelsa is the only ornamental palm with named green and variegated varieties, all having different growth forms and leaf shapes. For the collector, the choice of plants is near enough unlimited.
Here are some of the greatest variegated cultivars of this popular, dwarf palm.
Rhapsis excelsa “Zuikonishki”
Also known as “Auspicious Brocade” this is a miniature cultivar from the original R. excelsa and a highly collectable specimen plant. This variety has ivory leaves, striped with green and is considered one of the easiest cultivars to grow, adding to its popularity.
Rhapsis excelsa “Kotobuki”
This cultivar has green and yellow striped variegated leaves.
Rhapsis excelsa “Kinponishiki”
This Golden Haze Palm has light and dark green striped leaves.
The Prosperous Mountain Palm has stripes of light yellow and dark green variegation.
Rhapsis excelsa “Tailheinishiki”
This Tranquil Yellow Palm has very striking variegated leaves, a mix of creamy yellow and lush green. It’s worth pointing out that variegated palms grow slower than the all-green cultivars.
Planting your Palm
Finding the Perfect Soil
The lady palm is adaptable to different soils, but it grows best in a slightly acidic, loam-based soil. You can add some organic matter to your mix should you like, which will give your plant an extra boost of nutrients.
I have acquired the perfect potting soil recipe:
- 4 parts peat
- 2 parts perlite
- 1 part vermiculite
- 2 parts coarse sand or fine gravel.
Don’t re-pot your plant too often as the root system likes to be quite contained. Even though it may seem a little top-heavy at times. I also recommend top-dressing your potted palm with a fresh compost mix once a year.
Siting your Palm
They prefer to be sited in bright, filtered light rather than a full sun position which can easily burn its leaves. These are the perfect under-canopy plants when placed in a warm outside climate, with higher plants giving them the shade they need to prosper.
When growing your lady palm indoors, they’ll have a slower growth rate than those outside, which generally means they’re unlikely to outgrow their space. Choose a light spot, out of the direct heat from the sun. Additionally, set them away from windows, which can magnify the sun’s rays and scorch your plant.
When in active growth, I recommend keeping a static temperature of between 65–75 degrees F. In the winter months, your plant will need a rest period, which can be manipulated by a temperature drop. At this time, try to keep a resting temperature of between 46 and 61 degrees F.
Caring for your Lady Palm
Water well when in full growth mode, ensuring all the compost gets wet and allowing excess to drain away. Water again only when the top cm of your potting soil has dried out.
When in rest phase, water your plant sparingly, now allowing the top two cms to dry out.
Note that lady palm trees can get root rot when sat in water.
Mulch around the base of your lady palm in the springtime if your plant is sited outdoors. This will help nutrients go directly to the plant roots, and avoid them drying out in the summer.
Feeding your Palm
Use a well-diluted liquid palm feed once a month in the spring and summer. Try to find one specifically for palms with an N.P.K. value of something like 8-4-8.
To help your plant through the winter months, scatter some potash around the trunk in late autumn.
You shouldn’t really need to prune your palm as it has quite a compact, tidy shape naturally. However, once fronds have died back, you can remove these with a clean pair of snips. This will also help to stop bugs and infections.
As mentioned, the Rhapsis excelsa grows from a rhizome root system, which makes propagation relatively easy. Cut off suckers from the base of your palm and pot them up. When possible, choose a sucker that already has some roots, then plant it into a small pot of good compost.
There’s an easy to follow “How-To” below:
Place your suckers in a light position and water your cuttings, ensuring all of the potting mix gets moist. Re-water your suckers when the top of the compost has dried out. You’ll notice new growth emerging once the roots have taken hold.
Possible Plant Problems
Two of the worst pest offenders for lady palms are mealybug and scale insects. Mealybugs can be quite resistant to anything other than a chemical control. As a result, it’s best to spray your palm’s leaves and soil with a suitable insecticide.
In contrast, scale insects can be jet-washed or scraped off. Try rubbing with a cotton bud first and if that fails, you may need to pressure wash your palm. If this fails, use a suitable chemical control available from your local garden center.
Root rot can be a common problem, though easily overcome by only watering when your plant needs it. Some palms are particularly sensitive to fluoride and excessive fertilizer salts. Whenever possible, use rain water for watering your plants and avoid over-feeding your lady palm.