BY GARY SMITH

When Rio Grande Valley gardeners think of palms for the landscape, caravans of camels, poolside retreats, and caliche pathways lined with tall straight smooth trunks and waving fronds may come to mind. And we think of these palms reveling in the blazing summer sunshine with which we are “inevitably“ blessed. However, if should you have a sheltered spot or a large decorative pot, here are some choice shade-tolerant palms that will thrive in our climate.

Bamboo Palms

(Chamaedorea sp.)

Bamboo palms really do look a lot like true bamboos (which of course are grasses). They grow under forest canopies in tropical North America. There are several species with similar growth forms, uses and cultural requirements. Bamboo palms grow in clumps of graceful slender 0.5-1.5 inch diameter stems that grow up to 8-12 feet.

The clumps expand slowly over time without long-range runners. Each stem has around 12 ascending fronds that extend horizontally 1-3 feet in length. The stem of each leaf forms a ridge that makes a ring around the trunk; these rings give the palm its bamboo-like appearance.

However, the striking fruit of bamboo palm looks nothing like bamboo. Instead, brilliant orange gnarled branchlets twist like arthritic fingers among the stems, each covered with turquoise to shiny black 1/4“ fruits.

The stems and fronds partially hide these exterrestrial hands, creating a muted mysterious effect instead of looking like an oddly decorated Christmas tree.

With attention to several key requirements, bamboo palms are not difficult to grow in the RGW. They should be planted in bright shade, or places with early morning sun only. If grown in a bed with broadleaved plants, they may adjust to a slightly higher light intensity as they grow.

The best soil for planting has partially organic materials such as compost, with loamy to sandy mineral soils. Provide for periodic moisture; keeping them neither bone dry nor soggy wet. If in the ground, protect them from cold winds in winter fronts with near-freezing temperatures.

Bamboo palms do well in pots if these conditions are maintained, and the added flexibility of mobility will help them to thrive. They can tolerate indoor growing for long periods but only if high light and humidity needs can be provided.

Lady Palm

(Rhapis excelsa)

If Bamboo palms sound too demanding then plant a Lady Palm. Perhaps it should be named “Iron Lady Palm“ because it can grow and even thrive in situations most gardeners would consider palm abuse. Even better, it is so easy to grow, it can be found in almost any store that has anything to do with palms. And online, there is so much choice it should be very affordable.

Did I mention that Lady Palm is such an easy plant to grow and maintain? Consider its basic requirements outdoors in the RGV:

Lady Palm grows best in at least half shade. It can tolerate morning direct sun, but leaf burn and insect attack may occur with overexposure. But don’t worry about planting where it receives only indirect light; it will continue to grow, just more slowly.

Lady Palm needs regular water to look attractive and thrive but can take a period of drought. Supplement natural water if planted under an overhanging roof or porch where it receives no rainwater. Lady Palm can survive freezes down to about 20* so it should never die from freezing in RGV winters. It resists well the heat, winds and high humidity of the long RGV summers and will only show slight leaf burning when thirsty. There are few insect or disease problems.

Expect a well-placed slow-growing Lady Palm to reach a height of 8-12 feet over time.

After several years, it may need a haircut as its fronds grow up and bend under a roof or overhang. Lady Palm may also begin to spread by suckering shoots just under the soil surfaces. If not removed, these shoots will form a bushy clump, but in slow motion.

Another popular use for Lady Palm is as a large potted plant. It is an excellent specimen that tolerates confinement as long as its environmental needs are met with a couple modifications.

If grown indoors, the palm may need more light than it would need outdoors, and may need higher humidity than many indoor spaces normally provide.

Overall, Lady Palm can be a great choice by both novice and experienced gardeners to grow in RGV gardens, with low-light tolerance, modest drought- and wind- tolerance, and pest-resistance.