The robust and decorative dwarf palm, whose botanical name is Chamaerops Humilis, originally comes from the western Mediterranean. It's part of the Arecacae family, the Areca palms. The Latin name translates to just “low bush,” but this name doesn't tell you much about the exotic charm of this plant.
Dwarf palms grow to a maximum height of fifteen feet, although they generally reach just around five feet when grown indoors. Outdoors they can attain their full height of fifteen feet or so. They grow especially slowly. Brown fibers cover the stem. In contrast to the windmill palm (Trachycarpus Fortunei), the dwarf palm has thorns on the leaf stalks, so you should exercise some caution when re-potting the plant. It tends to grow more in width than it does in height and its beautiful, fanned leaves on leaf stalks up to 1.5 feet long create a Mediterranean ambiance in any home or balcony. Typically, the Chamaerops Humilis separates itself into multiple stems standing closely together. Frequently, clusters of yellowish buds will form on the stem in spring. New leaves are often dusty grey or hairy before they unfurl. After unfurling, these fine hairs will fall off. Fully grown leaves are light green or silvery, greyish green and arrange themselves into stiff, upward-reaching sections. Young fronds from this type of palm are usually coated in fine, grey hairs. Blossoms can form outdoors or even when the palm is kept indoors. They are cream colored to slightly yellow, and its fruits are colored brown.
Decorative Palms for Beginners – Requirements for Water and Sun
Even if you don't have a green thumb, or if you don't have much experience with growing plants, a dwarf palm can be a great addition to your home. It's extremely easy to care for and won't react too poorly even if you neglect it occasionally. What it does not handle well, however, is a buildup of water inside its pot, which puts its roots in danger of rotting. It prefers loose, porous earth in a pot or planting in a looser soil. It can withstand short periods of drought, but in the hottest days of summer it will need enough water. A spray with the garden hose or watering can will do lots of good, and allow the plant to thrive even in harsh summer sun. A good indicator to help you water correctly is to test whether the top layer of dirt in the pot has dried out. If so, it's time to add a little water to your Chamaerops. The dirt or substrate in the pot might dry out every two days in the summer, but this could take up to a week in the colder months of the year. In the winter, you can also wait a little longer between waterings. The basic rule of thumb is: the warmer the environment, the more often you'll need to water your Chamaerops.
Direct sun is the elixir of life for this plant and will allow it to develop into its full beauty. The more direct sunshine it gets, the thicker and more luxuriant it will grow. It will do well outdoors between May and September. Plants that have wintered in a darker area without direct sunlight and newly developed palm fronds need a little time to get used to the sunlight in the spring, otherwise you'll see sun damage on the leaves in the form of brownish spots. You should place the plant in a half-shaded area for the first two weeks after overwintering it, or in a place that just gets direct sunlight for a few hours a day.
Frost Protection for Your Palms
You might occasionally need to deal with a surprise frost in the fall or spring. If your Chamaerops Humilis are still outside, or if you've put them out for the spring, young or small plants may suffer some damage. If the roots in the pot freeze, this can prevent the plant from taking in water, causing the palm to dry out. Palms lose water all year long through evaporation, meaning they need extra water to compensate. The top area of the palm where new leaves are growing, called the heart of the palm, is also susceptible to frost damage. If the palm is in a protected, sunny area, it might be enough to cover it with a padded hood, a thick layer of burlap or a bamboo mat. You wrap the protective material around the whole plant. Be sure not to bend any of the fronds. Mulch, fir branches, or a styrofoam panel on the ground can protect the pot and root area. Chamaerops Humilis can be grown in most regions of the US, but can't be planted outside in areas which will experience long periods of frosted ground. If you live in one of these regions and still want to keep your dwarf palm outside, you'll need to use foam or styrofoam panels underneath the roots or find a way to heat or otherwise protect the plant.
Overwintering Dwarf Palms
The dwarf palm is definitely not a cold hardy palm. On the other hand, fully-grown Chamaerops Humilis can withstand temperatures below zero as long as their roots are protected well enough against the cold as described above. You shouldn't expect your dwarf palm to be able to stand up to long periods of colder temperatures, however.
That's why it's best to plant your Chamaerops Humilis in a pot, making it “mobile.” You'll be able to adjust the placement of your palm to the season and ensure it's well protected. It's best to overwinter the plant in a bright, cool room, at around 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don't have an area like this, you can use your dwarf palm to decorate your living room. You will need to spray it with water more often and check for pest damage.
Special Considerations With Dwarf Palms
As we mentioned earlier, you should be sure to avoid a buildup of moisture with dwarf palms so that their roots do not rot. You can do this first of all by carefully controlling how much you water it, but also by choosing the right type of potting soil. For example, you could blend nutrient-rich compost with sand or gravel. Expanded clay or clay granules are great to make sure the sensitive roots get enough air. Pure potting soil or garden humus, on the other hand, can compact over time, leading to damaging wetness in the roots. It's better to use terra cotta or ceramic pots as planters for palms instead of plastic ones, since they are more air-permeable and allow some moisture to pass through.
Since Chamaerops Humilis grows in a sedated manner, you will only need a new, larger pot every four years or so. When you re-pot the plant, you can also replace the substrate or even switch to another blend if needed. When you're removing the old soil, you can cut back the roots a little. Avoid radical cutting or damaging the plant. Palms grow taproots which reach down vertically. Your pot needs to be tall enough so as not to interfere with root growth. If you're starting to see the upper roots growing out of the side of the pot, it's definitely time to re-pot your palm.
You generally won't need to prune your palm, although you can remove palm fronds when they die, get brown, and dry up. To do this, simply cut the leaf stalk carefully about two inches from the stem.
You can apply common liquid fertilizers for potted plants or specialized palm tree fertilizer between April and August about once a week.
Dealing With Garden Pests
If your plant dries out too severely, especially if it's being stored in a warm place over the winter, this will increase the Chamaerops's susceptibility to mealy bugs, scale insects, or spider mites. A simple and totally chemical-free way to prevent this is to simply spray the palm with lukewarm water. If your palm is already infested, you should try to identify the pests and then deal with them. You can purchase a wide variety of chemical pesticides as well as organic varieties and beneficial insects, all of which you can order over the internet. You will generally need a little patience to use these methods, but you will usually have just as much success as if you used a poison. Little crawling “helpful” insects are also totally harmless to humans and animals.
Infested palms and other plants should be isolated before the parasites increase and attack other plants.
Spider mites will be a maximum of 1 millimeter in size and are either green, yellow, or orange. They are a type of spider which sucks cell sap out of the underside of the plant's leaves. They increase quickly in dry air inside your home. The common spider mite is easy to recognize, since it weaves fine nets at the edges and corners of leaves. Infested leaves will look like they've been sprinkled, but later will turn brown and dry out. For an organic solution, you could purchase predatory mites from the species Phytoseiulus or use a mite spray.
Scale insects also suck out cell sap and also inject a poison into the host plant. Carefully examine your palm, especially in winter, for insects with curved backs. If the infestation gets the upper hand on your plant, it will lose leaves. You can buy scale mite treatments for your plants which include a poison the palm absorbs and transmits to pests through its sap, killing them. Scale mites are not susceptible to contact poisons, however. Another option are parasitic wasps which you can purchase and place on your palm. Predatory insects like the beetle type Rhyzobius Lophantae have the same function.
Mealy bugs get up to 5 millimeters long and look like they are either hairy or wrapped in a tiny cotton ball. They can also quickly multiply under the right conditions and are just as dangerous to palms as scale mites, even killing some plants. You should isolate infested palms, and you can also fight mealy bugs with the right pesticides or with Australian ladybugs.
Propagating Your Own Dwarf Palms
Of course, you could just buy a new palm. But it's also not very difficult to propagate the plants you already have. If you'd like to “multiply” your Chamaerops Humilis, choose a section which already has several roots. Plant it in its own pot with nutritious compost soil. Place it in a bright area without direct sunlight at first. Keep the soil moist, but never let it get fully wet. Once the first green fronds appear, you can start to treat the new young Chamaerops just like an adult palm. One experiment which will certainly be interesting, and will frequently be quite successful, is buying palm seeds and trying to plant them. You'll just need to make sure to grow your seeds in an area with a minimum temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit.