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Parlor Palms—Growing Chamaedorea Indoors

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Parlor Palms—Growing Chamaedorea Indoors Photo © Betty Rocker/Flickr
The parlor palm has been used as indoor plant in the United States for at least 30 years. This attractive little plant was first discovered in Central America and brought back to the United States, where it immediately became a popular indoor palm. It gained a near-instant following for a few good reasons. It's adapted to relatively low light, can handle lower temperatures, and grows in attractive clumps with light-textured foliage cloaking thin trunks. Although I couldn't find hard figures, it's my unofficial guess that the parlor palm is the most popular indoor palm grown in most temperate countries. It is possible to sometimes find single specimens, but most often they are grown in small clumps so they resemble palm-like shrubs in attractive pots. These are related to the very small C. elegans that is sometimes used in dish gardens.

Growing Conditions:

Light: These are considered low-light palms, but that doesn't mean "no-light" palms. They still prefer bright, filtered sunlight to do their best. They are often used in a northern exposure.
Water: Like many palms, they are sensitive to overwatering and cannot tolerate being water-logged or sitting in saturated potting mix. Even moisture is ideal, but err on the side of slightly too dry rather than overwatering.
Soil: Any high-quality potting mix will suffice, but be careful not to let the mixture break down and become a sponge.
Fertilizer: Feed with a weak liquid fertilizer once or twice during the growing season and not at all during the winter. They are light feeders.

Propagation:

These are almost always propagated from seed by professional growers. It may be possible to successfully divide a clump into two smaller clumps, but this is not recommended. The plants aren't clumping by nature, but grown in clumps for aesthetic reasons. Otherwise, they cannot be propagated by stem cutting or leaf cutting. In general, it's best for most home growers to simply buy a new plant than attempt propagation.

Repotting:

Parlor palms have weak root systems and grow relatively slowly, meaning that repotting should only be done with care. In general, the plants stay a manageable size, so you shouldn't have to repot more than every other year. If, however, your potting media breaks down and becomes mucky or sponge-like, then repot to prevent root rot.

Varieties:

The main parlor palm is the C. elegans, which is native to Mexico and Central America. The related bamboo palm, C. erumpens, comes from slightly further south and is a bit larger, with more fan-like leaves. A few other varieties are sometimes seen in the trade, including the newer C. hooperiana, which resembles a kentia palm.

Grower's Tips:

Among all the palm trees, parlor palms are a great place to start for the beginner. They do especially well in 3-gallon pots (about 10") in a northern exposure or foyer, where they show off their fine textured leaves. Because they are tolerant of lower light conditions and sensitive to too much water, they are prime candidates to be "loved to death," either through overwatering or by getting too much direct sunlight. Resist the temptation. Similarly, they are light feeders and only need one application of fertilizer every four months or so to do their best. If your palm begins to develop dry leaf margins, it's most likely caused by cold drafts or prolonged dry periods. Try to raise humidity in these circumstances before overwatering. Parlor palms are vulnerable to pests including aphids, mealy bugs, scale, and white fly. If possible, identify the infestation as early as possible and treat with the leave toxic option.

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