Fan palms are low-maintenance and attractive houseplants. They are called fan palms because of their large, green, and fan-like fronds.
There are several species, but they are mainly suitable for indoor cultivation. The vigorous Washingtonia species are particularly popular.
Origin and Use
The term “fan palm” does not refer to a specific species or genus, but is a collective name for palm species with palmate, fan-like leaves.
There are numerous species that are native to different parts of the world.
The popular Washingtonia species such as the desert palms Washingtonia filifera or Washingtonia robusta originate from the southeastern United States or northwestern Mexico. They are now also widespread in the Mediterranean region in Europe.
The windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) has its natural habitat in the high mountains of Asia. In most areas, however, you can cultivate this and other species only in tubs due to their non-existent or only weakly developed winter hardiness.
Appearance and Growth
Fan palms usually grow solitary and tree-like. Although, strictly speaking, they are not trees due to the lack of trunk thickening.
The upright growing trunks are typically densely packed with annular leaf scars and covered with dry leaves.
The various fan palms owe their name to the characteristic structure of their leaves. The single leaves are very large, palmately divided, and have a fan-shaped outline.
The leaf veins are arranged in a radiating pattern from the base of the petiole to the edge of the leaf.
Are fan Palms Poisonous?
Since the various fan palm species belong to the palms family, they are non-toxic and therefore harmless to humans and animals.
Which Location is Suitable for Fan Palms?
Like almost all other palm species, fan palms need a lot of light. After all, they are plants that in nature stand in very exposed locations, in the case of the Washingtonia, for example, in the desert.
Place the tub plants as brightly and warmly as possible at temperatures between 68 and 77 °F (20 and 25 °C), although you should treat direct sunlight over the midday hours with caution. This can lead to leaf burn, so shading the plants is advisable.
Which Substrate is Suitable for Fan Palms?
Fan palms feel most comfortable in a special palm substrate. If, however, you want to mix the substrate yourself, choose coarse sand, which you mix with compost, peat, and expanded clay in equal parts.
High mineral content in the substrate is beneficial to the plants, and also increases the permeability of the mixture.
Palm trees are usually accustomed to dryness and do not tolerate excessive moisture. They certainly do not like waterlogging.
Watering Fan Palms
Especially in the spring, during the main growing season, you should provide fan palms with sufficient water.
For this purpose, always keep the soil slightly moist, but not wet. Do not water fan palms too abundantly at once.
Frequent and heavy watering not only leads to waterlogging which palms do not like at all but also washes minerals and nutrients out of the substrate.
Before each watering, do the finger test. If the substrate has dried on the surface, you should water the fan palm. Otherwise, do not water it.
During the hot and dry summer months, it is also a good idea to moisten the leaves from time to time, for example with lime-free water from a spray bottle, so that the large leaves stay nice and green.
Always use lime-free water to water fan palms. Using tap water will cause the plant to die sooner or later.
Fertilizing Fan Palms Properly
For healthy and beautiful growth, fan palms need a balanced cocktail of nutrients. Supply the plants between April and August with a liquid complete fertilizer. The fertilizer should contain especially:
- Nitrogen for the growth of leaves and shoots.
- Phosphorus for the formation of healthy and strong roots.
- Potash for stability.
You can use special palm fertilizer, but this is not mandatory. Always administer the fertilizer together with the watering water. In any case, do not dump it on a dry substrate.
Pruning Fan Palms Properly
Unlike the false palms such as the yucca palm, which is also widely used as an indoor plant, you must not simply cut fan palms should they grow too tall.
Cutting off the top often results in the death of the entire plant afterward.
Remove only withered, brown or yellow fronds, leaving no remnants on the trunk. These would serve as welcome breeding grounds for pathogens and parasites.
If possible, prune before putting the plant away in its winter quarters. When pruning, be careful not to injure yourself on the thorns.
Repotting Fan Palms
Repotting of palms is due in early spring so that the tub plant can then move into the growth phase with fresh substrate and a larger pot.
Do not knock the old soil out of the root system, but place it in the fresh substrate. This makes it easier for the plant to grow.
In addition, the new plant pot should be several sizes larger, and Washingtonia species in particular also need deep planters as they develop a deep taproot.
The right time for repotting is when the roots begin to grow out of the pot.
Wintering Fan Palms
As a rule, fan palms survive low temperatures down to about 18°F (-8 °C) quite well. Nevertheless, good protection from the cold is important, especially if the plant is to remain outside during the winter months.
To do this, however, you should wrap the palm well:
- Tie the fronds up with a thin rope.
- Put an airy, large bag, e.g., made of jute, over the palm.
- Styrofoam sheets, arranged around the palm and tied tightly, also protect against cold.
- Cover the trunk with dry mulch or a bamboo mat.
- Mulch the substrate to protect the roots.
However, if you expect prolonged or deep frosts, move the palm to a cool but frost-free and, most importantly, light winter location. Water the fan palm only a little, and do not fertilize at all until April.
Wintering in the living room is also possible, but difficult because of the dry heating air and the lack of light during the winter months. Keep the humidity high and install additional plant lights if necessary.
Diseases and Pests
Fan palms are often infested by mealybugs and scale insects, which are difficult to spot because of their coloration.
Therefore, check the plants regularly for infestation so that you can intervene quickly if necessary and prevent an invasion in time.
By the way, the first sign of an infestation is often brown or yellow discolored fronds.
In general, palms react with such discolored leaves when they do not feel well. Also, a too dark location, cold weather, insufficient fertilization as well as waterlogging or drought have this as a consequence.
So if brown or yellow leaves appear on your fan palm, it is important to carefully search for a cause and, if found, remedy it accordingly.
Species and Varieties
Usually, the three species Washingtonia filifera, Washingtonia robusta, and Trachycarpus fortunei are classified as fan palms.
But also Livistona palms and various other plants belong to this group.
Washingtonia filifera is a robust and fast-growing fan palm species. It is accustomed to dry locations and has its desert home in the south of the USA and in Mexico.
In their natural environment, these fan palms can grow up to 50 ft (15 m) high and reach a trunk diameter of more than 3 ft (1 m).
In container culture, this is of course not possible. There the plant remains significantly smaller. Watch out for the spiny leaf stalks, which can easily injure you.
Washingtonia filifera is also colloquially known as desert fan palm or California palm.
It has numerous, withered brown leaves that cover the trunk. However, in indoor culture, you can remove them without worry. For a short time, Washingtonia filifera tolerates some frost. But you should nevertheless overwinter it frost-free.
Washingtonia robusta, also called Mexican fan palm or skyduster, is very similar in appearance and growth to the species Washingtonia filifera. But it is considered more robust and less sensitive.
But this is not true when it comes to cold, because, unlike Washingtonia filifera, Washingtonia robusta tolerates temperatures of 23 °F (-5 °C) at most for short periods.
The species is native to northwestern Mexico, where it is usually somewhat wetter than in the ancestral home of Washingtonia filifera.
The Chinese windmill palm grows in a climate rather unusual for palms, namely in the heights of the Asian high mountains up to 8,200 ft (2,500 m) above sea level.
Consequently, this species is particularly suitable for cultivation in a mild climate, as it is naturally accustomed to rather cool temperatures.
The species feels especially well in a bright location with temperatures between 59 and 68 °F (15 and 20 °C). Older specimens can tolerate frost down to about 14 °F (-10 °C) for short periods but you should overwinter them as cool and frost-free as possible.
The windmill palm is often confused with the European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) and is therefore sometimes mistakenly found under this name in the trade.
However, they are different species with different needs.
The various species of Livistonia palms are also classified as fan palms. Most popular as houseplants are the cabbage-tree palm (Livistona australis), the fountain palm (Livistona chinensis), and the footstool palm (Saribus rotundifolia, formerly Livistona rotundifolia).
All species should be cultivated year-round at temperatures between 68 and 77 °F (20 and 25 °C), although you can also place them outdoors in summer.
The palms need a bright location but without midday sun and only a little water.