Along the beach, in the humid warmth of a dense forest, swaying in a vivid hammock daydream – palms are an evocative and distinct family of plants. Even if you’ve never been to a tropical region of the planet, chances are you can envision their swaying green fronds with relative ease.
The world of palm trees is as dense and alive as the forests in which these flowering shrubs and trees can be found growing. In this ultimate guide, we will explore the origins and history of palm trees, detail a number of species and varieties, and recommend ways to best take care of these luscious plants in your home or garden – even if you live far away from the equator.
The botanical name for the family of palms is Aracaceae, in the order Aracales. Palms can grow and spread in a variety of ways – as trees, shrubs, climbers. Today, we know of about 2,600 species of palms.
Most of the time, palms grow in tropical or subtropical environments. They are vibrant evergreens in their indigenous zones. The leaves are called “fronds” which can be quite large and compound in structure.
Palms are widely distributed around the globe. They are also a hugely important plant due to their diverse uses. Because of this, palms have a prominent plant-role in human history and society.
The use of palms by humans is dated back 5,000 years in the archeological record – stretching all the way to Mesopotamia and other early middle eastern cultures who worked to cultivate the date palm as a source of food and ritual. Some historians even credit the palm and the food the palms provided to the reason why expanding populations into hot and barren landscapes were successful at all.
It’s not only date palms that have shaped human society. These plants also provide us with coconut products, oils, wax, cane, and wood.
In classical antiquity, palm fronds were gifted to athletes and soldiers as a sign of victory. Palms are mentioned 30 times in the bible and at least 22 times in the Quran. Even today, practicing religious communities use the palm fronds in annual celebrations and festivals to symbolize hope, celebration, and victory. Certain religious sects regard the palm tree as the tree of life. In India, the coconut palm is mythologized as the “tree that provides all the necessities of life.”
Palm trees can often be spotted on travel brochures, seals, and flags of countries such as Haiti, Guam, and Saudi Arabia.
In reflecting on the many useful, delicious, and aesthetic offerings of this plant, it is easy to understand why so many people have embraced its symbolism into their daily lives.
Palm Tree Species
This guide will not be cataloging and describing all 2,600 different varieties of palms that we know of (whew!) but below are some highlighted species detailing native habitat, appearance, and facts about specific life cycles. Listed below are types of palm trees:
Acai palm, or Euterpe oleracea, is a species of palm tree cultivated for its fruit, hearts of palm, leaves, and wood. There is an incredibly high demand for this plant around the world, and it is widely cultivated today. It is native to South and Central America. The flowers of this plant produce drupes, also known as acai berries. They have a slender brown-grey stem.
The adonidia palm is a popular ornamental palm. Its botanical names are Veitchia merrillii or Adonidia merrillii, but it is also popularly known as a Christmas palm. This palm is a slow grower and won’t overwhelm garden locations when used in landscaping. This palm is thought to be deer resistant. It is native to the Philippines. In the fall and winter, this palm will produce showy clusters of glossy red fruit.
African Oil Palm
Known botanically as Elaeis guineensis, African oil palm is native to the tropical belt of the landscape along the West African coast of Angola to Liberia, reaching up to Uganda. It is now naturalized in the Pacific Islands as well as Brazil. It can reach up to 20 meters tall, with large compound leaves, and is moderately salt-tolerant. Male and female flowers grow in separate clusters upon the same tree. The fruit is green but turns orange with time.
Archontophoenix, or King Palm, is actually a group of six separate species of palms. These species are Alexandra King Palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) A. Cunninghamiana (the most common) A. maxima, A. Myolensis, A. Pupurea, and A. tuckeri. All six are native to Australia. Because these species are native to distinct parts of the Australian continent, they will “burn” if exposed to frost. Depending on the species, flowers will be white, cream-colored, purple, or lilac.
Areca palm, or Dipsis Lutescens, was once an endangered palm. Today, it is a clumping and well-loved palm that adorns the sides of streets in tropical zones and looks similar to bamboo. Its fronds are narrow but full. They can make a good houseplant and are often sold as clusters. In the summer, its blooms are a pale yellow. It prefers slightly acidic soil.
Bismarck palms have a striking frond color and texture – steely blue in color and standing stiff. The leaf pattern on the truck creates an engaging and pleasing pattern to the eye that adds to their aesthetic power. This Bismarck palm is easy to grow but has separate male and female plants. It can grow up to 70 feet tall and is a hardier palm when it comes to temperature.
Bottle palm or Hyophorbe legenacaulis is most distinct for its trunk shape. As the common name would suggest, it looks remarkably similar to that of a coke bottle. It is cold sensitive, with sparse frond that are green, long, and graceful looking. This is a cool palm for container planting as it is slow-growing.
Reaching up to 50 feet tall, Brahea armata has a stout trunk with bluish leaves. This palm is easy to spot by its meters-long inflorescences, which look sort of like feather boas a dancing queen might don for a night out on the town. The palm produces small flowers in early spring and is the most wide-spread endemic palm to the northern peninsula of Florida.
Broadleaf Lady Palm
Rhapis excelsa, or broadleaf lady palm, is a modified species created recently by Chinese cultivators. It doesn’t exist in the wild, but they are popular indoor plants, especially since they can clean the air where they grow. There are many types of this palm, with various attributes of variegated or not. Some varieties are rare and covetously tracked down by collectors. If you’re wanting to propagate this palm, you’ll need fronds and fronds of patience as the practice can take up to 7 years.
Borassus flabellifer (Asian palmyra palm)
This palm is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent where it is known by a handful of common names: sugar palm fruit, Tamil nadu, toddy palm, and Asian palmyra to name a few. It has jelly-like seed pockets with a sweet, refreshing taste. It is a food of great historical and cultural importance in the area where it is native. The tree itself can grow to 30 meters tall, with a girthy grey trunk. Male and female flowers grow on separate plants.
Butia capitata, or jelly palm also goes by names like jelly palm, pindo palm, South American jelly palm, and cocos capitata. It is a slow-growing and evergreen palm with blue-green fronds, that arc towards the trunk to give the palm a weeping effect. Each leaf has slender leaflets that form a v-shape.
California Palm or California Fan Palm
Botanical name Washingtonia filifera, it is also known as a desert palm or a petticoat palm. When the leaves of this palm die, they do not drop off. Instead, they fold down which creates a dense shag that must be burned off to be removed. It is the largest palm native to the continental USA. The berries and seeds are edible.
Canary Island Date Palm
Phoenix canariensis is native to the canary islands with shiny, feathery fronds. They are slow-growers with ornamental fruit. It is a relative to the true date palm, Phoenix dactylifera. It is a large and solitary-growing palm. The fruit is yellow-to-orange in color. It is edible, but not generally thought to be as tasty as true dates. The leaves have 80-100 leaflets.
Caryota is actually the name of a whole genus of palms. Popularly known as fishtail palms, these plants are native to Cape York, India, China, and South Asia. The leaves of the plant have jagged edges, reminiscent of a fishtail. These palms thrive in partial to full sunlight. As a common house plant, you’ll want to look out for spider mites. Rinsing the palm with insecticidal soap is a good first line of defense if you see the white webs.
This palm is native to Colombia and Peru and grows in humid mountain forests. It usually forms large populations and especially grows on steep slopes. It has a dense hemispheric crown. Also known as a Quindio wax palm, or wax palm, it is the national tree of Colombia and the tallest palm tree in the world. It is classified as endangered. Its truck is slender and grey, often towering, with fronds that point towards the sky.
Botanical name Cocos nucifera, these well-recognized palms can grow up to 100 feet tall and 40 feet wide. Their flowers are yellow and they are native to the Western Pacific region. They prefer neutral to acidic soil that is loamy, sandy, and well-draining.
Also known as the sago palm, this cycad is a popular landscaping addition that is cold hardy. An important thing to note is that this is not a true palm – cycas are an entirely different plant genus that is ancient and well documented in the fossil record. The Jurassic period is sometimes called “the age of the cycas.
Date Palm or Phoenix dactylifera
A species of palm tree widely cultivated for its edible fruit, it is a food that has wide and deep cultural implications, particularly in the middle east. It is a staple food and chief source of wealth in some desert communities. It can grow up to 75 feet tall with pinnate leaves that grow 16 feet long. More than 1,000 dates can grow on a single bunch on these trees.
Also known as the Triangle palm, this species of flowering plant is indigenous to the forests of Madagascar. Its upright fronds can grow up to 8 feet tall. Its flowers are green and yellow and later produce black fruit.
Fan Palm Tree
The fan palm tree name is often used as a descriptive term for a variety of species of palms – all of which are palmately lobed as opposed in pinnate.
Chinese fan palm
Livistona chinensis derives its common name from the way in which its fronds gracefully fan down from the crown of this plant. It is native to eastern Asia but has adapted to various landscapes around the world as it is a very adaptable and enduring plant. While Chinese fan palms can reach up to 40 feet tall, it can be maintained at a much smaller size. It is considered a great house plant for beginners since it can make do with forgetfulness and tough-love (better than most palms, that is!).
Mexican Fan Palm
Also known as Washingtonia robusta, Mexican fan palm is native to the northern deserts of Mexico. The single trunk is reddish-brown but will fade to grey with age. They can grow up to 100 feet tall. Because of this, they aren’t often used in landscaping or as ornamentals. They are only somewhat drought-tolerant.
Mediterranean Fan Palm or European Fan Palm
This palm’s botanical name is Chamaerops humilis; this is one of the hardier palms on the planet. It is a bushy evergreen that forms a small tree or, often, a rounded shrub. It can be multi-trunked or stemless. Its green leaves are tinted blue-to-silver with up to 20 stiff segments at the end of the petioles. Its bright yellow flowers bloom in the spring. It has the capacity to withstand exceptional heat and wind and is drought-tolerant. It can survive temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many palm trees thrive in Florida, and while this common name is often used, it is interchanged between many different species which makes it a less-than-helpful moniker. Palm trees that are native to Florida include dwarf palmetto, needle palm scrub palmetto, saw palmetto, Sylvester palm (Phoenix sylvestris), and paurotis palm.
Foxtail Palm (Wodyetia Bifurcata)
Foxtail palms are fast-growing. It is a visually distinct palm in that it is evenly proportioned with full and rounded fronds – bushy like a fox tail, some might say. It is self-cleaning and looks polished when healthy. The full tree can reach 30 feet tall. Mature foxtail palms produce heavy clusters of red fruit.
Other names for this palm include Kentia palm and thatch palm. It is endemic to Lord Howe Island off the coast of Australia. It is a popular house plant because it has low-light tolerance. It is a broadleaf evergreen with compound leaves.
As its name suggests, this palm is native to southern Madagascar. Technically, it is not a palm at all, but actually a member of the succulent and cactus family. They can be grown indoors or outdoors in temperate regions and can reach up to 6 feet in height. This plant goes dormant in the winter.
Parlor palms (Chamadorea elegans) is native to the rainforests of Mexico and Guatemala. It is one of the most widely distributed house plants in the world. This is because it tolerates crowded roots and low light levels. Generally, it is between 4 and 8 feet tall with green, alternately compound leaves.
This is a species within the same family as the date palm, though this species is commonly referred to as the pygmy date palm. Native to Asia, it is a smaller tree than the Date Palm. Phoenix roebelenii often grows along river beds and other moist areas.
Queen palm, Syagrus romanzoffinia, or cocos palm is native to South America. It reaches up to 50 ft in height with pinnate leaves, often with around 300 leaflets (also called pinnae). It is a very common species in its native range, covering parts of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Birds eat the fruit pulp of this tree, and it is very popular in ornamental gardens.
A critically endangered plant, spindle palm, or Hyophorbe verschaffeltii is endemic to Mauritius. It is threatened by significant habitat loss, even as it is grown widely in cultivation. They are a shorter palm tree variety with erect, arching leaves. Certain individuals of this tree can resemble the bottleneck palm.
Also called a windmill palm or a Chusan palm, this tree is a hardy evergreen native to parts of Asia. It is a single-stemmed fan palm with blue-black fruit. Its appearance is variable. The texture of its trunk is rough and female and male flowers are produced on separate trees. In China, this tree is used to make coarse cloth for ropes and sacks.
Palm Trees In A Changing Climate
Palm trees are threatened by human development, exploitation, and ignorance. Tropical rainforests are devastated by ongoing urbanization, agriculture, and poaching. Many types of palms are unable to reproduce in the midst of such radical changes in habitat. Palm seeds lose their viability very quickly and are unable to withstand the colder temperatures that are used in seed-saving banks in the world’s colder regions. When palm trees can’t reproduce, the biodiversity of the forest goes down, and that’s bad news for all of us – even if we don’t live in tropical regions of the globe.
Big challenges we face in the fight to save palm trees and forest biodiversity: Creating and maintaining global policy that protects the natural areas that still exist, restricting urban and unsustainable agricultural development, and holding corporations (which are largely responsible for large-scale decimation of natural areas) accountable and incentivizing businesses and nation-states to rebuild economies rooted in ecological health and responsibility.
One issue to be aware of is that of the palm oil industry and its horrifying impacts on ecosystems. It is a major driver of deforestation practices and is responsible for destroying the habitats of endangered animal species such as orangutans, pygmy elephants, and Sumatran rhinos. This industry is also known to exploit workers and engage with child labor.
Palms As House Plants
Because of our strong associations between palm trees and beautiful, beachy, and peaceful locations, palms can make a great houseplant to support mental health while adding vibrancy to your living space. They provide a tropical look no matter where you make your abode. Many varieties do not require full sun.
Popular varieties of houseplant palms include Chinese Fan Palm, Areca Palm, Majestic Palm, and Parlor Palm. Different species of palm house plants will have different requirements for light and water. It is a good idea to do research to make sure that you match the environment of your home to the needs of any houseplant, otherwise, it will be an uphill, and often losing, battle.
But there’s no need to be intimidated! Palms can be a great starter plant for folks who are just beginning. An indoor palm is happiest with well-draining soil in a pot with a hole in the bottom. This will ensure the roots don’t rot in stagnant water.
An important note: not all plants are safe to keep in the house with cats, dogs, and children. Any true palm should be fine but stay away from sago palms or any other cycads if you’re concerned that curious creatures might try a nibble.
If you are wanting to incorporate palms into your garden or greenhouse, the right species (and whether it’s possible at all) will depend greatly on where you live. Cold hardy palms include Bismarkia nobilis and Brahea armata, though even these species are not hardy enough for zones above 6. Saw Palmettos are drought tolerant.