Pygmy Date Palms

Brian Barth
Pygmy date palm - Image courtesy of Jungle Music Palms and Cycads

Pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii) is a dwarf palm for subtropical landscapes, but is small enough to grow in a pot and bring indoors for winter in colder climates. Its soft leaf texture and idyllic form have made it one of the most popular palm varieties.

Pygmy Date Palm in a Nutshell

Though they can reach 25 feet in an ideal tropical environment, pygmy date palms are more often seen in the 10 to 12 foot range, or less if they are grown in a pot.

Fronds

The six to eight foot canopy is composed of long feathery fronds comprised by numerous narrow leaflets that give the tree a soft appearance overall. That being said, the leaflets do terminate in sharp spines, but the trees lack the stout look of palms that have stiff fronds, thorns or not.

Trunk

The slender trunk has decorative protuberances along its entire length from where fronds were once attached, but have fallen off as the tree grows. The tree naturally has just one trunk, though it is commonly planted in tight clumps which creates the look of a multi-trunked palm as they grow, often resulting in picturesque curved trunks.

Fruit and Flowers

While pygmy date palm is closely related to the larger edible date palm, this species is not really grown for its fruit - it's more like a pit surrounded by a thin edible skin, rather than something that could be harvested and enjoyed. Because of their slow growth rate, it may be five years or more after planting until the palms flower and fruit.

The flowers are long clusters of cream-colored blooms that emerge from the center of the canopy each spring, followed by reddish fruit that turns dark as it ripens in summer.

pygmy date palm fruit
Fruit (c) Mmcknight4
pygmy date palm flowers
Flowers (c) mgonline.com

Environmental Preferences

Pygmy date palms tolerate light frosts, but a hard freeze will kill the tree. They enjoy full sun, but also grow well in partial shade or filtered light. Regular moisture is needed though it is important that the soil be well-drained. Otherwise, they are not particular about soil type. The palms are hardy in USDA zones 10-11.

Landscape Use

pygmy date palm used in landscape
(c) Geoff Stein

Pygmy date palms are a quintessential 'dooryard' palm, a traditional use of a palm or other small tree as a focal point in the front of or next to the front door. They are just the right size, have a trim and tidy growth habit, and an inviting appearance. They can be used this way when planted in the ground or in a pot.

Its small stature also makes it useful as a patio tree or as an accent for beds of perennials. Plant pygmy date palm with lush, brightly-colored, tropical-looking plants for the best effect, such as canna lilies and begonias.

Growing in Containers and Indoors

This palm is not a good candidate for growing year-round indoors, but keeping it inside for a few months in winter is a realistic option, as long as there is a space available for it with bright natural light throughout the day.

A 25-gallon size container or larger will be necessary to accommodate a mature pygmy date palm, which could be expected to reach six or eight feet in height when grown in a pot. Since they are slow growers, it's fine to start out with a 15-gallon pot, which will accommodate the tree for several years. Use a standard soilless potting mix and abstain from fertilizing when the tree is indoors.

Care and Maintenance

Pygmy date palms need regular water and fertilizer. The soil should be kept moist at all times, making it a good idea to maintain a thick layer of mulch over the root zone. Use a fertilizer prepared specifically for palms and apply it according to the rates and frequency indicated on the package. Otherwise, the only real maintenance is to trim off the lower fronds periodically as they begin to droop and turn brown.

Troubleshooting

The most common problem with pygmy date palms is potassium deficiency. This causes the tips of the fronds to turn yellow, then brown, which can progress to consume entire fronds, causing them to fall off and leave the canopy looking sparse. Fortunately, treatment is usually very simple, as the deficiency is invariably caused by using the wrong type of fertilizer or not fertilizing at all. Palm fertilizers are typically designated as 8-2-12 or 8-0-12, which means they contain 12 percent potassium that is essential for pygmy date palms. Most other fertilizers have a lower ratio of potassium content and are not suitable.

Ganoderma butt rot is the most common disease affecting pygmy date palms, which slowly causes the lower portion of the trunk to rot. There is no cure for it, but care should taken when disposing of plants infected with this disease, as it is highly contagious and affects and large number of palm species.

A Picture Perfect Palm

Pygmy date palms capture the essence of palm trees and offer it in a small, manageable form. If you live in Florida or southern California, you can grow it in the ground; otherwise it will survive happily for years in a pot as long as it is brought indoors for winter.

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Pygmy Date Palms