Palm trees are the quintessential centerpiece of any tropical landscape. It’s hard to imagine an island resort or desert oasis without them. However, many young palms also make excellent houseplants.
In this article, I’ll cover the basics of how to care for palm trees indoors, including some common troubleshooting tips and a few species I recommend for relative beginners.
- 1. Bright, Indirect Light
- 2. Soil Moisture and Humidity
- 3. Soil Mix
- 4. Fertilizing Palms
- 5. Pruning Palm Trees
- 6. Pest Control
- 7. Potting and Re-Potting
Indoor Palm Tree Care
Palm trees are relatively easy to care for indoors despite their exotic appearances. But that doesn’t mean you should blindly care for a potted palm and just hope for the best. You’ll need a bit of knowledge under your belt if you want to keep an indoor palm alive for more than a few months.
1. Bright, Indirect Light
Palms grow best in partial shade, making them great contenders as houseplants. The ideal place for your potted tree is somewhere that receives several hours of bright but indirect light throughout the day.
Keep in mind that our windows block a significant amount of light rays already. All but the sunniest of windows will be appropriate for a tree kept indoors. You don’t want to place your palm too far away from a natural light source. If you don’t have an easily accessible window near your palm tree, I highly recommend investing in a large grow light to keep it healthy.
Also, consider your palm’s light needs if you opt to move it outdoors during the warmer months. Be sure to select a spot that receives partial or dappled light and acclimate the tree to its new environment slowly to prevent shock or sunburn.
2. Soil Moisture and Humidity
In my personal experience, soil moisture and humidity are the trickiest factors when caring for a palm tree indoors. Most species thrive in humid, tropical climates and won’t fare well if grown somewhere too dry.
Take care not to let your palm tree’s soil completely dry out between waterings. Yellow or brown fronds are a frequent symptom of infrequent watering. A good rule of thumb is to water whenever the top inch of soil is dry to the touch.
On the other hand, palm trees grown in containers are prone to root rot. You should never leave a palm sitting in standing water. If there is a saucer located beneath the tree’s container, empty it as soon as water accumulates.
While your household humidity will likely suffice during the summertime, you may need to supplement the air around your tree during the winter. Something as simple as a portable humidifier plugged in next to the tree can make a big difference during the dry season.
3. Soil Mix
The average tree will grow just fine in traditional potting soil. There are also several high-quality mixes designed specifically for palm trees available to choose from.
No matter the exact formula, it’s important to choose something that is lightweight and offers ample drainage. Amendments like perlite, vermiculite, and peat moss can be added to improve these qualities if desired.
4. Fertilizing Palms
All potted plants require occasional fertilization. When it comes to palm trees, you can use an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer or one designed for palms specifically. Some palm varieties are sensitive to chemical salts found in many fertilizers, so be sure to provide adequate water with all feedings.
I only recommend fertilizing when your palm tree is actively growing — the growing season typically occurs during the warmer half of the year. In other words, indoor palms should not be fertilized during the winter. Follow the guidelines provided with your chosen fertilizer to determine how often to feed your palm tree.
5. Pruning Palm Trees
Palms must be pruned very carefully. For optimal health, I only recommend cutting off old fronds that have turned completely brown. You should not prune a palm tree with the goal of changing its shape or overall size.
Palm trees are unique in that they draw nutrients from dying fronds. This is why you should wait for old or damaged fronds to die off rather than pruning them away at the first sign of discoloration. Though these fronds are unsightly, they provide valuable nutritional support to the tree at large.
It’s also crucial that you never cut away fronds from the top or center of a tree. This is where new fronds are produced, and damaging the center of the tree could destroy all future growth.
6. Pest Control
Indoor palm trees are susceptible to common pests like spider mites and mealybugs. Cultural measures such as providing adequate humidity and good air circulation can help prevent infestations. Monitor all houseplants and quarantine as needed to prevent the spread of pests to other plants.
You can safely treat mild infestations of palms with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. More severe cases may require chemical intervention with a pesticide such as bifenthrin or permethrin. Remember to read and follow all product labels when using pesticides.
7. Potting and Re-Potting
Palm trees tend to have shallow root systems that are sensitive to repotting. It’s okay to let an indoor tree become moderately rootbound before relocating it to a larger container.
Infrequent repotting can also help keep your palm at a manageable size. In most cases, it’s best to repot indoor palms every 2 or so years to prevent rapid growth.
The first signs of health problems typically occur in a palm tree’s fronds. Discoloration, wilting, dryness, and excessive leaf drop are all common symptoms that could indicate something bigger going on beneath the surface.
Leaves Turning Yellow
Yellowing leaves that appear with no other obvious symptoms are often the result of overwatering or poor drainage. At the first sign of yellow foliage, I recommend evaluating your watering practices and how well the tree’s soil and container are draining.
If you notice yellowing only between the veins of palm fronds, a nutritional deficiency of either manganese or iron may be to blame. While iron deficiencies are largely superficial, a lack of available manganese can quickly kill a palm tree.
Leaves Turning Brown
According to the University of Florida, palm trees of all kinds are extremely susceptible to potassium deficiencies. The most obvious sign of this deficiency is browning which first affects the tips of older fronds before progressing upward.
I suggest ruling potassium out as a potential cause before moving on to other reasons your plant’s foliage may be turning brown. If you do find that the soil lacks potassium, the use of a slow-release supplement is the best treatment.
Brown foliage may also be the result of underwatering, nitrate salt buildup, or advanced root rot. The former two problems can be treated by adjusting your watering and feeding regimens. You may be able to revive a palm tree with root rot by removing diseased tissue and repotting. However, there is a high chance the tree will succumb regardless.
Falling fronds are often a natural part of a palm tree’s growth cycle. There’s no reason to worry about old, dying fronds dropping at a moderate rate.
With that said, excessive leaf drops could be a sign of environmental stress. I recommend re-evaluating all facets of your palm tree’s care — i.e., location, temperature, humidity, watering, soil content, container, fertilizer, and so on.
If the falling leaves are preceded by unusual yellowing or browning, try working your way backward. Identifying the root cause of the discolored foliage will likely solve the lead drop problem as well.
How To Revive A Dying Palm Plant
There are a number of reasons a palm tree could be on the decline. Though some trees are bound to fail as a result of age, stress, or illness, many can be saved with prompt intervention.
For the best chance at recovery, follow these steps to diagnose and treat your tree’s ailment:
- Check for symptoms of pests or disease — treating such conditions should take precedence
- In the case of illness, remove fronds with visible signs of infection
- Leave all other yellow or brown fronds on the plant until they die off
- Provide additional filtered light via a well-lit window or grow light
- Flush the soil to remove excess fertilizer or salt buildup
- Test and treat for nutrient deficiencies
- If necessary, contact a local professional for further assistance
3 Types of Popular Indoor Palm
While there are over 2,000 known species of palm trees in the world, a select few make up the vast majority of those grown as houseplants.
If you already own an indoor palm, there’s a good chance it belongs to one of the species below. If not, then I strongly recommend starting your collection here:
Parlor Palm (Chamaedorea elegans)
The parlor palm is a classic houseplant that even a true beginner can grow with relative ease. These trees tend to grow from clumps of thin stalks rather than a single central trunk. Parlor palms tolerate low light and room temperatures but require moderate humidity to survive.
Majesty Palm (Ravenea rivularis)
Majesty palms account for many ornamental palm trees in both pots and landscapes. This species tolerates low light and grows quite slowly, making it a seemingly ideal houseplant. However, its moisture requirements are quite high. I don’t recommend trying your luck with a majesty palm unless you have a bright bathroom, enclosed sunroom, or another space with high humidity.
Also known as a bamboo palm, this species is one of the most widely recommended for growing indoors. While the bottom half of the plant closely resembles bamboo, the top boasts classic palm fronds. Areca palms are heavy feeders and should be fed consistently throughout the growing season. This species also requires high humidity to maintain healthy-looking foliage.
Of course, these varieties are just a scratch in the wide world of ornamental palm trees.
A few other honorable mentions include the Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis), the cascade palm (Chamaedorea cataractarum), and the dwarf date palm (Phoenix roebelenii).
There are also several popular houseplants that are sold as palms despite being completely unrelated. Notable examples include the sago palm (Cyca revoluta) and the ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata). Neither of these species is a true palm tree and, as a result, their care needs may differ.