Palms are popular houseplants but some are destined for a longer life than others. By far the best is the Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana). Unfortunately it is not the most popular palm for one simple reason – it is expensive. My plant cost 70 euro and, while not exactly a bargain, you can easily spend more on one.
The two most popular palms for indoors are the Areca palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens now Dypsis) and the much smaller parlour palm (Chamaedorea elegans – Neanthe bella). These are easily grown from seed and are sold as clusters of young seedlings which allows them to quickly make saleable plants but unfortunately these crowded seedlings then struggle to mature and the plants have little chance of reaching maturity. The parlour palm is naturally small and it loses the lower leaves as it ages to develop slim stems. Both have rather thin-textured leaves that suffer from dry atmosphere with brown leaf tips unless misted. But you can get ten of these for the price of one Kentia palm, which are never sold as tiny plants. Even so they are sold as clusters of three to five seedlings in a pot, but this is far better than a dozen or so. I also have a caryota palm which is a clump of 20 or so seedlings and I am always wondering what to do – try to split them (bound to cause the death of them all) or perhaps cut off two thirds of them at soil level, to allow the rest a chance to get bigger.
But back to Kentia palms. Although commonly offered for sale (though not in IKEA – it is too expensive) it is a rare plant in the wild. It is considered vulnerable in the wild and is endemic to Lord Howe Island in Australia. It can reach 10m high with a trunk, though in the home it rarely forms a trunk but the leaves can reach 3m long. It is cultivated on Lord Howe Island, and on the ‘nearby’ Norfolk Island (both off the east coast of Australia). The seeds are collected and germinated before being exported to be grown as houseplants so I assume, and hope, that this is a sustainable industry (it is regulated) that benefits the islanders and the palm, ensuring its survival in the wild and in cultivation.
Lord Howe Island was ‘discovered’ in 1788 when a ship intending to form a penal colony on Norfolk Island passed on the sailing from Botany Bay. It was uninhabited at the time but became a hub of the whaling industry and the colonists hunted many of the native birds, including large flightless birds, to extinction. That was not the end of the destruction after European settlement. Rats were accidentally introduced in 1918. They destroyed many birds and possibly the Lord Howe Island stick insect which was declared extinct in 1920 but rediscovered in 2001. It is still considered the rarest insect in the world. Rats are now thought to be eradicated.
But back to the palm. It is obviously named after Lord Howe Island (after Richard Howe, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time) but also Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg Forster who were with Captain Cook on his second voyage to the area in 1772-5. It soon entered cultivation and a century later it was an essential part of Victorian decor, partly due to the growth in interest in conservatories and partly because it proved to be tough. It is said that Queen Victoria loved the palm so much that she wanted them arranged around her coffin. It became associated with luxury and ‘palm courts’ a feature of any high-quality hotel, were decorated with kentia palms. It is likely that it is one of the few plants to sink with the Titanic; the palm court on board was decorated with Kentia palms.
In the home it will tolerate temperatures down to 10c and also poor light. Although not quite as tough as that other Victorian favourite, the aspidistra, it also withstands some neglect and occasional drying out, though it will not put up with sitting in water.
I water my plant carefully, giving a good soak now and then. I water most of the time with rainwater, at room temperature, though my tap water is from a well so there is no chlorine or flourine (though heaven knows what else – though I do have a substantial filter). It is fed at every watering in the growing season, at less than half strength. I tend to use liquid lawn fertiliser for the foliage houseplants (just fertiliser – not with weedkiller) which is high in nitrogen, for foliage. Now and then I use ericaceous fertiliser (which is for specific plants but gets shared around) or something organic to supply trace elements. It is best to feed with something than not to feed. My plant has been with me about three years and it grows so slowly as to be almost impossible to notice. But it is bigger and fuller. I don’t mist it on a regular basis but I do wipe the leaves of dust now and then. It is in the hall which is well lit but not in direct sun. It would tolerate lower light but would grow more slowly. I have not repotted it yet. Many houseplants die because of over-enthusiastic overpotting. If well watered and well fed they will usually be happy in surprisingly small pots. If you do repot, always do it in spring so the plant has time to fill the new compost with roots by winter to reduce the chance of overwatering and rotting.
One of the good points about this palm is that it grows slowly, so is not going to be a nuisance in six months. If your idea of interior decoration is a glass vase of twisted twigs then this will not be quite as easy to look after but it won’t need masses of attention either or get too big too soon.
This is one of those frustrating palms that performs so well in the mild coastal climates of Southern California, but prefers to be inside here in Norther California. I is so handsome in landscapes, but gets shabby with the mild frost here. It really is an excellent houseplant though, since it survives for so long within confinement. Scale can be a problem, but it can likely be a problem for any palm in the home.
It is interesting that northern California is too cold for it. We all like to push the boundaries of what we can grow – I have a Butia capitata in the garden which survives but hardly grows. Scale is always a problem on evergreens so I am not surprised it attacks palms.
There are many distinct climates between here and Southern California, and more climate zones within a few miles than in most states. That is how California is. Butia capitata grows slowly regardless, even in Los Angeles. It is a difficult tree to identify though. There are so many species of Butia, and any of several of them can get labelled as Butia capitata. I think I know what it is, but I am not certain. Furthermore, the species exhibits major genetic variability!