Palms 101


The International Palm Society (IPS) has prepared this guide covering a variety of basic palm information for members and non-members 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, and for a more interactive experience our forum site, 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.

Some unusual facts about Palms
  • Along with grains (rice, wheat, oats, barley, etc.) and legumes (beans, etc.), palms are the most useful plants in the world for food, fuel, fiber and shelter.
  • Calamus manan, a climbing palm or rattan, has the longest stem of any plant ever measured, reaching upwards of 564 ft. (172 m.).
  • The tallest palm is Ceroxylon quindiuenseof Colombia; they can exceed 160 ft. (50 m.).
  • The palm with the thickest trunk is Jubaea chilensis, whose trunk diameter can reach 4.3 ft. (1.3 m.)
  • Raphia regalishas the longest leaf in the Plant Kingdom –  up to 82 ft. (about 25 m.).
  • The largest flower stalk (inflorescence) in the Plant Kingdom belongs to Corypha umbraculifera; its central stalk is over 14 ft. (4.5 m.) long, bears over 21,000 flowering branches, and carries up to 15 million flowers.
  • Lodoicea maldivica(the double coconut) has the largest seed of any plant, weighing 40 lb. (18 kg.).
  • Phoenix canariensis has the most recognized symbol and silhouette of any plant in the world.
  • In 1969, petrified palm wood became the official state stone of Texas. It is also the State fossil of Louisiana.
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 palms common names that are used in the same way all around the world. When purchasing a palm, having the scientific 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 Palmarum by Dransfield et al.,and 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,

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, coastal 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 and can even be used as a ground cover.
  • They can be very tall (over 160 feet or 50 m)
  • They can have a single (solitary) trunk.
  • They can have multiple trunks. (clumping)
  • They mostly have small flowers not larger than 1 inch or 2.5 cm in diameter, but usually smaller still.. These are held in clusters (called Inflorescences). One type of palm has the largest flower cluster in the world.
  • The fruits and enclosed seeds develop from the female flower and can be as small as 0.25 inch or 0.6 cm to the world’s largest seed which can weigh as much as 40 lbs. or 18 kg. (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 (Raphia) has the longest leaf in plant kingdom. (80 feet or 24 m)
  • Trunk diameters can range from 0.5 inch (1.3 cm) to 6 feet (182 cm).
  • Some palms have stilt roots that can grow from the trunk of the palm as large as 6-8 feet (1.5-2.4 m) feet above the ground. (Careful where 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 (few cm to 3 m), medium palms from 10-50 feet (3-15 m) and large palms can reach over 100 feet (30 m). The leaves can be very feather-like (pinnate) or fan-like (palmate), leaf stalks 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 and 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 feather leaf or some people like palms that have all fan like leaves. 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 is mistakenly call the “areca palm.” This is a clumping (produces many trunks) palm that is used as a screen or hedge; its real name is Dypsis lutescens. Other palms that are quite common are:
  • 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 is deep canopied forest and direct sun will burn their leaves. Others 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 which 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.
    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 scarring 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 leaves and petioles that are 20 feet (6 m) long so one palm will span 40 feet (12 m) 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 (3-6 m). 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?
    Yes, but not all insects are bad. Palm flowers can be important sources of pollen and nectar for bees and other visiting insects. Floral visitors should be encouraged. Other insects may not be so welcome.  These include ants, scale insects, mealy bugs, aphids, caterpillars and spider mites (which are arachnids, not insects), just to name a few.  Natural predators, such as ladybugs, should be encouraged, as they can control many common garden pests.  Some infestations can be minor and treated with a jet of water from the hose. In other instances, pest infestations require more aggressive treatment. Most good palm books will have a section (description and pictures) on pests, so you will have an idea of what you are up against.  The proper identification of the pest is essential, because different pests require different treatments.  Pesticide application should be the treatment of last resort.  Strive to use the least toxic method of control possible, and never treat a palm with insecticide when it is flowering, as pesticides are harmful to bees and other pollinators.Prevention is usually the best way to keep you palms free of pests.  Inspect your plants frequently so that minor infestations can be controlled before they become a serious threat to the health of your palms.
    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 rot, Leaf spot fungi, Sooty mold and Phytophthora bud rot. There are a great many online resources like the University of Florida UF/IFAS Extension has available, 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?
    Ask experience growers on the PalmTalk forum and at your local Affiliate; they can help you locate what you’re looking for.