Palm trees conjure up a host of images, from idyllic tropical beaches to a life-saving oasis surrounded by miles of baked desert. Mostly we think of them as the backdrop to some spectacular scene. That’s a mistake though, because palms themselves are fascinating. They belong to a distinctive family of plants, the Arecaceae, which contains more than 2,600 species. Most of them follow the classic palm shape, of a single tall stem with a cluster of large, spreading leaves at the top, but there are many exceptions too. The family includes shrubs and vines as well as trees, and range in size from small bushes to the 200-foot Quindio Wax Palm.
Most of us think of palms as a tropical plant but that’s not completely reliable either. Almost all of them are but about 130 species grow outside the tropics; most of these are found in subtropical areas but a few also thrive in warmer temperate zones. A handful even grow in parts of Britain and Canada, which are definitely not tropical countries. The variety goes on and on; palms are the source of a huge variety of fruits, the sap of some species can be fermented into wine, there are palms that produce cooking oil, building materials, industrial fibers, a huge range of foods and many other resources. Their value, and their exotic image, make palms interesting trees and the internet is full of questions from people who want to know more about them. One of the most common is “How fast do palm trees grow?”
From what you already know about palms it’s not hard to guess the answer to that – it’s “Depends what kind of palm tree”. With such an enormous variety of trees in the family it’s not surprising that their growth rates are as wildly diverse as their size and uses. Palms have a reputation for growing very fast, but that’s not universal. It does have a lot of truth behind it though. Tropical palms face a lot of hazards. Rainforest species – and that’s about two-thirds of all palms – are in a lifelong race for energy. A slow-growing species will be crowded out by the huge trees of the jungle canopy, so to reach the life-giving sunlight they need to grow fast. When a tree falls in the rainforest the gap it creates is swiftly colonized, and the plants that can raise their own leaves to the canopy first will be the winners. Palms, with their leaves concentrated at the top of a straight trunk, are well suited to these races.
Other species, especially in the Caribbean and on the Gulf coast, are in constant danger from hurricanes. A large tree with deep roots and a strong trunk has a better chance of surviving the powerful storm winds; a small palm will be uprooted or snapped like a matchstick. That means a fast-growing tree has a better chance of being large enough to survive when a storm hits.
So tropical palms tend to grow faster than more northern species, but there can be a lot of variation between individual trees. Sunlight is key – the more sun a palm gets the faster it will gain height. Rich soil or the right fertilizer will also make a big difference, so it’s hard to say exactly how rapid growth will be – but some species are usually faster than others. There are palms that gain a few inches a year, and others that will climb at many times the speed.
- The European Fan Palm is a popular species with gardeners, for many reasons. It’s quite hardy, and can tolerate cool winters and the occasional hard frost. A shrub, it fits well in most gardens with its maximum height of about 16 feet. It also grows slowly. Juvenile plants might put on up to ten inches a year but as they mature they slow down; a mature plant will often add just one new leaf, and a couple of inches in height, annually. If you want a manageable palm this one is a good choice, especially if your local climate isn’t as tropical as it could be.
- The Rhapis species, or Lady Palms, are also slow-growing. These small varieties are favorites as indoor palms, often grown as bonsai in Japan and earning the nickname “parlor palms” in 19th century America. Outdoors in a suitable climate they’ll grow by three to ten inches a year but indoors this will be much lower. In ideal conditions they can reach eight or more feet high, but it can take them a long time to get there.
- On the other hand the Foxtail Palm grows much faster. This Australian species thrives in tropical areas but can also tolerate cooler weather and coastal locations, even where it’s regularly sprayed with salt water. It’s now widespread in gardens in the warmer parts of the USA and also makes a good indoor palm as long as there’s space for it. The foxtail can reach up to 32 feet high, but usually stops at about half this height indoors. It usually grows more than a foot a year and can reach its full height in 20 years or less.
- One of the most vigorous species is the Carpentaria Palm. Another Australian species, this impressive tree can easily reach over a hundred feet in height. It’s a rainforest species, so as you can guess it grows quickly. Even for a jungle tree it stands out though. Given the right conditions – rich soil and a warm, moist climate – the Carpentaria can shoot upwards at a rate of six feet a year. That makes it among the fastest growing palms – and the fastest growing of all trees.
Unless you live in the warmer parts of the South it’s unlikely your own palm will match its species’ maximum growth rate, but it could still gain size at an impressive speed. That makes it important to select indoor palms carefully; pick the wrong species and it can outgrow the available space in just a few years. On the other hand if you want to create a dramatic outdoor scene in a hurry a palm could be ideal. Palm trees offer one of the widest ranges of growth speeds you’ll find anywhere and a smart gardener can make use of that.