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Fairchild’s tropical garden column: small palms for a full backyard

Dwarf cabbage palm (Sabal minor) is a small palm that grows its trunk underground. This palm is great for a small space with lots of light.
Dwarf cabbage palm (Sabal minor) is a small palm that grows its trunk underground. This palm is great for a small space with lots of light. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Plant lovers’ backyards are usually filled with rare and beautiful greenery. Palms are the epitome of tropical gardens and a must-have for any backyard collection. But, after years of adding to your collection, space is tight. Cabbage, royal and oil palms are too hefty to fit, and you may think that palms simply take up too much space.

Or do they? While many palms require a lot of growing room, some are much smaller. These pocket-sized palms can squeeze into tinier living quarters. Plant the following pocket-sized palms to get the tropical feel without the backyard break needed for a monstrous sugar palm.

▪ Christmas palm (Adonidia merellii) is an ideal grower. It flourishes anywhere, no matter how shady or sunny, wet or dry. It is slender and will squeeze into the tightest spot. Plant this palm if height is not an issue. The Christmas palm grows tall very quickly. If you have a tight space but space in your canopy, this palm is a definite winner.

▪ Dwarf cabbage palm, Sabal minor, is the giant cabbage palm’s smaller counterpart. This palm is acaulescent; it grows with its trunk underground. It can survive in wet or dry conditions and only needs space for its small crown. This palm is a Florida native. Not only are you adding a new growth form (acaulescent trunk) to your collection but you are building a native garden.

While sunlight is optimal for the first two palms, most small palms prefer to be shaded. Understory palms stay short because they don’t want to grow into the canopy. They prefer the safety of the shade and moist soil. If sunlight is not available in your yard, plant one of these understory palms:

▪ Shade-loving miniature sugar palm (Arenga caudata) is the pocket-sized version of the huge sugar palm. While tiny, they are still excellent growers. They clump, similar to their regular-sized counterpart, but stay manageable. If they start to exceed their boundaries, take a lopper and cut out some stems. These palms may get hungry, and removing stems exacerbates this. Make sure to give them a nice sprinkling of 8-2-12 fertilizer three times a year. The leaves are just as beautiful as the growth habit and resemble fishtail palm leaves. The miniature sugar palm would be a great addition to any backyard jungle.

▪ The mangrove fan palm (Licuala spinosa) is native to the mangrove understory in Asia. This clumping palm is water loving so make sure to keep the soil moist. Regardless of the light, the leaves will turn a beautiful jade green when the palm is well watered and fertilized once a year. This slow-growing palm will stay content in a small, shaded area. What are you waiting for? This palm is a champ!

▪ Asterogyne martiana (Pata de gallo palm) is another beautiful understory palm that requires lots of water and shade. Sometimes this tiny palm will grow its trunk underground, making it appear even smaller. This palm can take partial or full shade, but like any understory plant requires moist soil. If the right conditions are met, and the palm is healthy, this little stunner will bloom and produce flowers year round. Now, pollen is available year round and this greatly helps insects struggling to find pollen. Not only are you adopting a palm and giving it a happy home, you are feeding our native critters.

Understory palms thrive in shady conditions so don’t let lack of space stop you from expanding your palm collection. Every open spot, no matter how tight, could be a potential home for a palm. The popular saying “great things come in small packages” definitely applies to palms.

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