Palms and ferns have been used to decorate homes for hundreds of years. These plants, which are early on the evolutionary scale, have been employed as houseplants for a much longer period than the traditional flowering types, and their graceful and elegant nature has impressed countless generations of plant enthusiasts.

The heyday of the palm was the Victorian era. when they graced many a drawing-room, rubbing shoulders with ferns and aspidistras which at that time were the backbone of indoor plant decoration. Even today there are few more pleasing sights than that of the aristocrat of all palms. Howeia forsteriana (previously called Kentia) standing in splendid isolation on top of a Victorian plant pedestal.

Besides doing duty as specimen plants -standing on their own – the majority of taller palms will also be the ideal background subject when a group of assorted plants are placed together. Whenever possible the dark green colouring of the elegant palms should be set

off against light-coloured furnishings -light-coloured walls, in particular. making the perfect background. Perhaps the least pleasing aspect of palms is their often high cost in comparison with other indoor plants. This is usually due to their scarcity value -there are always more customers than there are mature plants for sale. For instance, seed for Howeia forsteriana, which comes from the Lord Howe Islands, is always in short supply. There is the further complication in that almost all these plants are slow-growing, and occupy considerable space in commercial greenhouses. Fortunately, the reverse is true of the popular parlour palm. Chamaedorea elegans (which may also be seen labelled as Neanthe bella or Collinia elegans). A considerable benefit is that seed is produced in many parts of the world, and the plants can be sold in small pots when they are about one year old. The parlour palm is initially small, and an ideal subject for inclusion in containers housing a mixture of plants.


Although palms originated from Iropical regions and have, essentially, an exotic appearance, they are not difficult to care for as houseplants. Even in respect of temperature they are not demanding. and although there are some exceptions. most will do better at about 16 deg C (bl deg F) than they will if temperatures are maintained at very high levels. In higher temperatures – in excess of 21 deg C (70 deg F) – where there is also a marked tendency for the atmosphere to be drier, it will be found that there is a much higher incidence of red spiders. Good light is important, but strong sunlight should be avoided as leaf scorch may result if plants are placed close to a window pane in a sunny room. Glass has the effect of a magnifying glass – particularly frosted glass.


Loamless mixtures may be satisfactory for plants in their early stages of growth. but more mature specimens must have a richer and more durable mixture. Many of the palms. Phoenix canadensis and P. roebelenii, for example, produce a large mass of light-coloured roots which in time become so numerous as they accumulate in the pot that they push the root-ball upwards and clear of the container. This should act as a warning that when repotting large palms it will be a futile exercise to use more modern loam-less composts.

A mix of peat, leafmould and good loam in equal parts will then give excellent results for the majority of palms. However. there should be a tendency to increase the amount of loam in the mix for larger plants. To improve drainage, all mixes should have a proportion of sharp sand added.


With the majority of palms, good drainage is essential. However. Microioelum weddelianum (syn. Cocos weddeliana) is an exception, as during its early stages it is frequently grown in pots without drainage holes. Normally, however, ensure that the pots have holes in the

bottom and that they are covered with a layer of broken clay pots prior to the compost being placed in the base of the pot.

As a general guide to potting-on palms. move a plant in a 9cm (3in) size pot into a 13cm (5in) pot; a plant in a 13cm (5 in.) pot can be moved into an 18cm (7in) pot; and one in an 18cm (7in) pot should be potted into a 25cm (10in) container. which may well be a tub of some kind. Palms should be potted much more firmly than most other houseplants, and after potting the soil should be thoroughly watered, then kept slightly dry for several weeks. However, at no time should the soil become excessively dry – being slightly dry for a few weeks after potting encourages the production of fresh roots.

An experienced grower of palms, however, knows full well that many of the more vigorous plants, such as Caryota urens, would very quickly outgrow the limited space of an average living-room. liven when their roots are confined to 25cm (10in) pots the caryolas. with their unusual ragged leaf edges, will attain a height of 4-4.5m (12-15ft). It is. therefore, obvious that it is necessary to keep the plants in small pots for as long as possible.

Root pruning

The stronger-growing palms, such as caryota and Cocos nucifcra, can, as an alternative to potting-on, have their roots pruned, similar to bonsai plants. Root pruning of vigorous subjects can be quite severe – healthy plants will sutler a little but not unduly. The effects of root pruning in this way restricts growth and holds plants at a much more manageable size. For example a Howcia bcl-moreana over 50 years old may still be in a tub of 30cm (12in) diameter and be 3m (10ft) high.


When watering, pour water on to the top of the soil in sufficient quantity for the surplus to be seen draining through the bottom of the container. Waterlogged compost can play havoc with palms. Therefore, if water is seen to remain on the surface of the soil for any length of time it will be necessary to remove the plant from its pot so that the drainage can be checked.

Worms present in the compost produce casts which eventually block the drainage holes and cause the soil to become waterlogged. Similarly, poorly-drained compost containing too much loam and insufficient sharp sand can. in time, cause saturated conditions. The most common reason for plants deteriorating is that the owner cannot resist the temptation to be forever watering the plant.


Foliage may become discoloured as a result of insufficient feeding. Palms will need to be fed as soon as they have become established in their pots. In most instances, a policy of little and often is more beneficial than to give the plants heavy doses of food only occasionally. Unless the plants are in especially favourable locations and growing during the winter months, it should only be necessary to feed them during the spring and summer. Following potting-on into larger containers of new compost it should not be necessary to feed the plant for at least six months – that is, until the roots have well filled the new soil and are in need of additional nourishment.

Keeping palms healthy

Palms are not particularly troubled by pests or diseases, though red spider mite can be a problem in a hot, dry atmosphere. Scale insects might also be found. In spite of their tough appearance and texture, palm leaves are highly susceptible to many chemicals, so be careful in the choice of insecticide.

Because of the sensitivity of the leaves of many palms, particularly Howeia for-steriana, it is also wise to keep them well away from aerosols intended for furniture or for cleaning windows. Even leaf-shine products are best avoided – instead simply wipe the leaves with a damp sponge or cloth.

Easy palms to grow

Howeia belmoreana has typical palm leaves that in mature specimens may attain a length ol’2.1-3m (7-10ft), with the serrated leaves drooping gracefully from the stout central midrib of the leaf. It is very much the palm court type of plant, with leaves spreading over a wide radius, which tends to rule larger plants out for all but high-ceilinged larger rooms.

More suitable for indoors is Howeia for-steriana, which has more graceful and upright growth, and is seen at its best when several plants are potted together in the same container. Although in ideal conditions this plant may attain a height of 4.5m (15ft), it will be found that by putting several young plants in the same container initially growth will be much less vigorous than if a single plant had been placed in the container. This is the most graceful and best suited palm for the modern home.

As a young plant, Cocos nucifera (the coconut palm) has attractive, upright leaves not unlike those of the howeia, but tends to become coarser with age. As with most palms – if seed is obtainable -it can be sown at any time of the year in almost any free-draining soil mixture, but will require a temperature in the region of 24 deg C (75 deg F) to induce germination.

An interesting aspect of this plant is that it can very occasionally be acquired with growth sprouting from what must be one of the largest seeds of all – the actual coconut complete with its outer husk in which it is protected on its tree. The coconut, lying on its side and half exposed in the centre of a pot and with growth sprouting from one end. provides a very interesting and decorative plant. In its natural habitat, the plant may attain a height of 27.5m (90ft), and will develop into a substantial plant with roots confined to a pot. However, its development takes many years and plants can be both interesting and decorative over a long period prior to outgrowing their allotted head-room. There are three phoenix palms that are occasionally grown. The best of these for room decoration is P. canadensis, which produces stiff, radiating leaves from a stout basal trunk. It is slow growing and compact.

Much bolder in appearance is P. roebel-enii, with firm and generally spiteful leaf stalks. It therefore requires to be handled carefully. Also of interest is P. dactylifera, which is the date palm of commerce and grows to become a substantial tree. A name to curl the tongue around is Clinisaiidocarpuslutesceus, also known as Areca lutescens, which produces clusters of small, bulbous basal stems that have an interesting yellow colouring. When confined to pots, a maximum height of some 1.8m (6ft) can be anticipated. Foliage is slender and upright, and possibly injurious chemicals should not come into contact with the leaves. The windmill palm. Trachycarpusfortunei (also known as Chamacrops excelsa) is a familiar hardy palm in southern parts of Britain and an interesting plant to grow in a container. It has the advantage of

occupying a position on the patio during all but the most adverse months of the year. Indoors, good light is essential. Requiring shade from strong sunlight. Euterpe edidis is a palm that is making bold efforts to become popular. Its thin, rather sparse foliage, suggests that it has much to do to compete with the palms previously mentioned. Give it the same treatment as suggested for the howeias. Indigenous to California, Washingtonia Jilijera and IV. robusta are plants that are occasionally available in Britain. They need modest warmth in the region of 16 deg C (61 deg F) to do well. As with the majority of palms indoors, less water is required during the winter months.


These ancient plants bring an atmosphere of coolness and tranquility to the home. They are both bold and delicate plants, and although non-ilowcring have a distinctive charm not found in any other group of plants. It is now possible to buy a wide range of types for home decoration and. though they may vary in appearance, most require similar treatment.

In many instances, a bold clump of ferns of the same kind can be much more impressive than a collection of individual plants. In this respect several plants in a larger pot on a pedestal, or grouped in a hanging-basket, can provide a dominant and attractive feature in a spacious hallway or lounge.

How to grow ferns

At no time should ferns be allowed to dry out. Moisture at their roots and in the atmosphere surrounding them are important needs of all ferns. To provide these essential needs it is wise to plunge the pots in which plants are growing into larger containers filled with peat. sphagnum moss, or even wet newspaper. The essential requirement is that the material in which pots are plunged should be able to retain a reasonable amount of moisture. Besides making arrangements for the area surrounding their roots to be moist. it is useful to have a hand sprayer with a line misting nozzle. It can be filled with tepid water and regularly used to mist over the foliage.

Ferns, with their graceful and delicately-textured green, sometimes silvery-grey. foliage will need protection from direct sunlight.

Any drying out of the compost in which plants are growing, followed by exposure to direct sunlight, can play havoc with them. In fact, exposure to direct sunlight at any time is something that most fern plants can well do without. Feeding of established plants is. of course, necessary, but avoid the temptation to make too heavy applications. It is better to give frequent and light feeds. than a lew that are very heavy. It is best to feed ferns through their leaves by using a foliar feed applied through a handsprayer bottle producing a line mist. Foliar feeds do not damage the tender root systems.

Composts and potting Many ferns are acquired as reasonably large plants in relatively small pots, and it is wise to pot them on into larger ones. Delay in potting such plants will frequently result in them becoming starved of nourishment.

There are many potting composts available, but with ferns it is essential that the mixture does not contain any lime, and that it is open and librous. The diversity of this family makes it difficult to recommend a mixture that will be suited to all plants, but it should be open and librous. and ideally contain equal parts of loam, leafmould, coarse peat, and sand.

Keeping the ferns healthy

Ferns are not too troubled by pests, but scale insects can be a nuisance. /Also. mealy bugs often infest the more inaccessible sections of the plant. Leaves that are badly infested with scale insects should be removed completely, and a damp sponge used to wipe the scales forcibly from other leaves.

Easy ferns to grow

Of all the ferns used for indoor decoration. the nephrolepis in its many forms is the most important, and when properly cared for there can be few more satisfying potted plants. The ladder fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), in its many line crested and plumed cul-tivars. has ’cw peers. In liner specimens the linear-shaped fronds are 60cm (2ft) or more in length, and a bright, fresh green in colour.

These plants are seen at their best when placed on a pedestal, or suspended in a

hanging-basket. There are numerousex-cellent examples of this line fern. Among the best are the Boston fern (Ncphwkpis cxnlttiui ‘Bostoniensis’). N. c. ‘Teddy Junior’ and . e. ‘Whitmanif. None of these is difficult to manage. Similar in appearance to the nephrolepis. but with softer and less robust foliage thai is also a paler shade of green, is Microlepia setosa. It requires similar cultural requirements as the nephro-lepis. Another line fern with densely clustered and delicate fronds of a pale green colouring is Davaltia fijiensis, which can be most rewarding when seen as a solitary plant in a suspended macrame hanger.

The holly fern. Cyrtomium falcatum ¦Rochfordianum’. has. as its common name suggests, a holly-like appearance. although it is quite harmless to touch. Nevertheless, the leaves have the same glossy green appearance, and the plant itself is a fairly easy and robust grower. It is probably a little ambitious to consider the Australian tree fern. Dicksonia antarctica, among the genuine house-plants. but it is a possibility for the heated greenhouse that offers ample space. It is difficult to obtain, and is one of the true aristocrats among foliage plants, developing long, typical fern fronds on top of stout tree-like trunks. Its stately appearance gives the plant considerable character. Cool, moist conditions are

really essential, as well as a compost that is free-draining.

At the opposite end of the scale. Pellaea rotundifolia is flat and compact, with dark green glossy leaves attached to wiry stems. It is an easy plant to grow. Totally different in habit. Lygodiutn vol-ubile, also on wiry stems, is of a climbing habit and will quickly wind its way round any sort of framework. (live it good drainage, protect from sunlight. and keep reasonably warm. There are numerous cultivars of the hardy hart’s tongue fern. with strap-like leaves. On account of its hardiness, this is an easy plant to manage in a cool room. Poly-stichum setiferum is another handsome plant with splendid foliage that will add much to any collection of ferns, and it is easy to grow.

Many ferns will grow more freely if attached to a tree branch and treated as epiphytes. The roots are bound in sphagnum moss and attached to the branch with plastic-coated wire, and thereafter kept moist. One of the best plants for this purpose is Platycerium bifurcatum, the stag’s-horn fern, also known as P. alcicorne, which produces

flat leaves for attaching itself to trees. The fertile fronds are of antler shape and can be handsome in mature plants. One precaution when handling these plants is to ensure that the leaves are not damaged.

Asplenium nidus and A. bulbiferum are both attractive plants, with the former being the more difficult to grow. It needs shade and warmth to succeed well. The leaves are very easily damaged and should not be handled. With their pale green and delicate leaves attached to wiry, dark stems, the ad-iantums. among which are the maidenhair ferns, are some of the most beautiful indoor plants. All of them need careful alien lion and a temperature in the region of 12 deg C (65 deg F). They need shade from direct sunlight, and moist surroundings. The plants should never be allowed to become starved as a result of remaining in small pots far too long. Pot them as soon as they are well rooted. Adiantum raddianum (syn. A. cuneatum). A. capillus-veneris and A. tenerum are all well established and dependable. Among the pteris ferns there are many line, dependable forms that are not difficult to care for. and can be put to many

uses indoors. 0’ these. I’lcris erotica is one of the most popular. There are also many cultivars with green and variegated foliage, including P. c. Albo-lineata’. with a central variegated stripe running through each frond, and P. c. ‘Yvilsonii’. which has crested tips to the fronds. Pteris ensiformis ‘Victoriae’ is another line plant worthy of inclusion in any collection.

The selaginellas belong to the family Selaginellaceae. but like asparagus plants they are commonly referred to as ferns. These plants form mossy clumps of green or variegated foliage, and are really best suited to the confined atmosphere of bottle gardens. Plants soon deteriorate should they become dry or neglected, so it is best to buy plants from a reliable source. There are a number of cultivars that are occasionally available, among them being S, kraussiara (syn. S. denticulata) and its golden form.V. k. ‘Aiirai’. They require close, moist and warm conditions.

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