Pygmy date palms can add tropical flair indoors

February 12, 2020

In 2005, researchers sprouted a 2,000-year-old Judean date palm seed. In a nod to its biblical history, the palm tree is named Methuselah, after the Bible's oldest man. Perhaps more important than being able to sprout after 20 centuries, it was the only known living Judean date palm, which has been extinct for over 800 years.

While you can't just yet grow a Judean date palm of your own, you can grow a smaller date palm in your home or office, the pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii). You probably won't get any edible dates, because date palms really need tropical heat and sun to bloom and set fruit, but you will have a large, very graceful house plant.

Pygmy date palms remain small as trees go, usually under three or four feet tall, and will grow in lower light than most other palms. Even when small, they have the classic palm tree look and will give any room an elegant tropical flair. Pygmy date palms are also great indoor air filters that naturally remove toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide, benzene, formaldehyde, and xylene from the air.

Date palms need good light to grow best, so choose the brightest spot in your house, where the plant will get several hours of direct sunlight. You may want to add grow lights to give them a real boost. In the summer, after all danger of frost has passed, move your pygmy date palm to a bright porch or sunny patio. 

Often, pygmy date palms are planted three to a pot so they have the look of a single tree with many limbs. Date palms grow best when slightly pot bound. After a few years, you will have to repot your pygmy date palm when it has outgrown its container. If the roots are growing out of the drainage hole, then it is probably time to move your tree to a slightly larger pot, one that is about 2 inches wider and deeper. Water it well before easing it out of its current pot. Use a potting soil that drains well, such as soil mixed with 1/3 sand or vermiculite. About the only downside to growing a graceful pygmy date palm indoors is the sharp and somewhat dangerous spines. Always wear heavy gloves and long sleeves when handling pygmy date palms.

Even though they hate standing water, your indoor date palms need to be watered regularly. If you aren't sure when to water, err on the side of too little rather than too much. Poke your finger into the soil, and if it’s dry, then it’s time to water. Give it enough so that water drains out the bottom of the pot. Your pygmy date palm can benefit from fertilization when it is rapidly growing in spring and early summer. Use a good organic fertilizer that is high in nitrogen. Never apply fertilizer during the winter when the pygmy date palm is not growing.

Dates, the fruit of the date palm, got their name from the ancient Greek “dactylus,” meaning finger, because dates resemble human fingers. Plant a pygmy date palm and you just might have a date with history.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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