Fairchild’s tropical garden column

Speeding up palm growth


Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

In the horticultural and landscaping world, faster growth generally results in higher popularity. Landscape designers and horticulturalists favor plants that germinate in days, and mature in weeks or months. Unfortunately, one of the plants that we in South Florida love, the palm, is notoriously slow. Germination takes months, and reproductive maturation takes years. For palms, being slow is a perk. Slow growth results in a longer life, resistance against disease and overall toughness. Slower maturation also allows palms to fully adapt to their environment before becoming majestic giants.

While being slow has its perks, there are some simple tricks to speed up palm growth.

When planting palms, it is essential to replicate their natural habitat to the best of your ability. A rainforest palm will not succeed in full sun and dry soil, just as a desert palm will not appreciate being hit by a sprinkler every morning. If you want your palm to mature to its full potential, take time to consider planting location. A palm planted in the right place is a happy palm, and a happy palm will flourish.

When considering location, keep in mind that all palms are set back by cold. Depending on the temperature drop, cold weather can have minor to fatal effects on palm health. We can give our palms the best conditions possible but sometimes conditions are out of our control.

For quicker development, try palms that are accelerated growers. It is important to note that being “fast” in the palm world is not the same as “fast” for a tomato plant. To keep things in perspective, palms that grow one to two feet per year are considered quite speedy. The following palms are of this assortment; if properly cared for, they will shoot up in no time.

•  Acrocomia crispa, or the Cuban belly palm, earned its name honestly from the bulge in the middle of its trunk that resembles a large potbelly. Cuban belly palms are also heavily armored. Sharp spines jut out of their leaves and crown shaft. Under good growing conditions, they will build a sizable trunk in three to four years and the spiny leaves will no longer be an inconvenience. Cuban belly palms prefer full sun and good drainage. They do not require much fertilizer; just a regular dose of 8-2-12 palm special once a year. If you get truly adventurous you can try roasting the seeds and eating them.

•  Archontophoenix cunninghamia (Bungalow palms) are widely used and extremely popular due to their fast growth. These palms can germinate from seed and shoot up to six feet tall in four years, making them one of the fastest. These palms also have the most striking crown shafts. They are stately and majestic and exemplify palm beauty. Adding to their attractiveness, these palms do not require trimming of brown leaves; they drop dead leaves on their own. They can be cultivated in full sun or shade. Not only fast and beautiful, they are also extremely low maintenance.

• Almost all Ptychosperma species are fast growers. One extremely speedy species, Ptychosperma pullenii, can sprout to six feet in five years. Some species clump (like the Macarthur palm, Ptychosperma macarthurii) while others are solitary ( Ptychosperma elegans). They are also a favorite due to their low maintenance and thrive in a variety of habitats: full sun with lots of water or shade. All Ptychosperma palms are known for their elegant trunks, dramatic leaves and showy fruits. No matter your backyard, there is definitely a place for a Ptychosperma species.

It is important to remember that no palms are truly “speedy.” In fact, I often hear palm enthusiasts say “We don’t plant palm seedlings for ourselves but for our children.” But by following these tips and planting appropriate palms, it is possible to have a “fast” growing palm.

Sara Edelman is the palm and cycad manager at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

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