Pygmy Date Palm

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Pygmy Date Palm,Phoenix roebelenii

Family: Arecacea

Also known as:  Miniature Date Palm

This tropical forest, “feather palm” cousin to the Medjool Date Palm is a highly popular accent plant used both in and out of doors.  It originated in Southeast Asia and Southwestern China.

It is one of the most widely used landscape palms in North America.  As a result of its small stature, slow growth, easy care and graceful, attractive crown, it is great for patios or entryways.  “Functionally cute” may best describe this small palm.

Slow growers, they reach an ultimate height ranging from two and a half to three feet (8.20 – 9.84 meters) with a width that sometimes exceeds its height.  While not seeing it myself, I’ve heard of a 35-year-old plant that was 17 feet (5.18 meters) tall!

They thrive both as an indoor container plant (but remember, like its larger relatives it has very sharp, needle-like spikes), or as a complement to other outside tropical greenery.  In this venue, keep in mind that they need protection from the wind.

Arranged along the Pygmy Palm’s gently arched leaves are fifty to one hundred delicate, dark grey-green, pinnate leaflets.  It has a slender, straight or multi-curved trunk with old leaf scars.  Though a single-stemmed plant, it can be clustered – generally in groups of three to five – creating an attractive arrangement wherein the plants all gracefully grow away from the center of the clump. (Don’t ‘cha just love to say that simple, monosyllabic word . . . Clump?)

While not necessarily an art form, the proper trimming of its dead fronds can result in a rather beautiful trunk with the decorative protuberances a result of those frond stubs.

And yes, it does have dates.  (But only with Papa Date’s approval and always home by 10:00 PM).  In point of botanical fact, while the Pygmy Date Palm is closely related to the larger edible date palm species, these are not grown for their fruit.  That fruit, by the way, is a drupe (also called a stone fruit which is a fleshy fruit usually having a single hard “stone” that encloses a seed).  The fruit of the Phoenix roebelenii is more like a pit which is surrounded by a thin edible skin. 

As a result of their slow growth rate, it may be five years (or thirty-five dog years), or even more, after being planted until the Pygmy Date Palm will flower and fruit.  This fruit, is borne (or is that born – or both?) on the female plants.  They are small and, initially, jet black. . . then, turn a deep red when ripe.  Throughout the year, they emerge from small, white, cream or grey in color flower clusters that are hidden deep in the foliage.

This pretty, perky palm can be propagated by seeds that take three to four months to germinate.  But, in all reality, they are reasonably inexpensive to buy already started, so why go to all that trouble?

Adaptable to most, well-draining soils, it likes bright sun to partial shade.  Salt and drought tolerant, it requires adequate moisture.  Water three times a week in order to allow it to grow to its full potential. 

Overall a rather hardy plant, it can tolerate brief dips of temperature to as low as 20° F (-6.67 C).  Be watchful of scale pests, mealy bugs, red spider mites, leaf spot and bud rot.  If potted, don’t allow its roots to stand in water.

Perhaps its most common problem is potassium deficiency.  Lack of this can result in its fronds turning yellow, then brown and, ultimately, falling off.  This diet deficiency comes from using the wrong type of fertilizer or none at all.  A proper one should contain twelve percent potassium.

It also appreciates magnesium sulfate and manganese fertilization every three months or so – and some extra nitrogen is a good thing.  A healthy plant will develop “sucklings” from the root base of the plant.

Ganoderma butt rot is the most common disease affecting them, which slowly causes the lower portion of the trunk to rot.  For this, I know of no cure, but take care when disposing of plants infected with this disease, as it is highly contagious.

At the risk of redundancy, remember to use caution when working in immediate proximity of these palms with their needle-like spines – arranged near the base of the leaf stem – which can easily penetrates one’s skin in a most painful, attention getting manner!  

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Like its larger relations, the Pygmy Date Palm has needle -like spiked petioles.

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With fifty or more fronds in its dense crown, they can reach an ultimate height ranging from eight to ten feet tall and I’ve heard of one that grew to seventeen feet!

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“The trunk of the Pygmy Date Palm – as seen in this potted specimen – is every bit as attractive as those of his much bigger cousins.”