Follow These Expert Tips for Growing a Christmas Tree Palm

Photo credit: Stephen H. Brown
Photo credit: Stephen H. Brown

If you need a vacation but can’t get away to a tropical destination, why not grow a Christmas tree palm? Before you ask: It’s a common question, but no, the Christmas tree palm doesn’t look like a Christmas tree! Native to the Philippines and Malaysia, this attractive palm, also called Manila or dwarf royal palm, actually gets its name from the bright red fruits that appear on mature trees, usually in late December. Although it’s a single-stemmed tree, you’ll often find it planted in clumps of 2 or 3 for aesthetic reasons. “With dark green foliage and red berries, it’s a striking tree,” says Mica McMillan, PhD, professor of palms and ornamental horticulture at the University of Florida. “It’s a more compact palm so it works in smaller gardens and also is less needy and fertilizer-hungry than many other types of palm trees.”

Here’s what else you need to know about growing a Christmas tree palm.

How do I care for a Christmas tree palm?

Christmas tree palms (Adonidia merrillii, formerly Veitchia merrillii) grow in zones 10B to 11 (find your zone here). Some people have luck planting them in containers on the patio or treating them as houseplants in cold climates. “These palms don’t take well to frost,” says McMillan. “If you live north of the Orlando area and keep it outdoors in summer, you’ll need to bring it indoors before the temperatures drop.” Place it in a sunny south-facing window, or use a grow light in dark rooms.

Outdoors, pick a spot in full sun, which is 6 or more hours of direct sunlight per day. This tree reaches 20 to 30 feet tall with a canopy spread of about 5 to 8 feet at maturity, so give it plenty of space! When planting, dig a hole 2 to 3 times the width of the pot, but not any deeper. Place your tree in the hole with the root flare, where the base of the tree widens, above ground. Pay attention to this feature because planting too deep is a common mistake, says McMillan. Replace the soil, pat down firmly making sure no air pockets remain, then water well. For Christmas palms in containers, stick your finger in the dirt and water only when dry because they don’t like to be too soggy.

Once established, this palm is moderately drought-tolerant and can handle some salt spray on foliage. If you like, fertilize it once a year with a palm fertilizer. These palms are self-cleaning, meaning once a leaf dies, it falls off cleanly and tumbles to the ground. So, you’ll never have to prune, just tidy up underneath the tree as it drops foliage. Typically, these trees live 20 to 50 years.

Photo credit: Zen Rial - Getty Images
Photo credit: Zen Rial - Getty Images

Is the Christmas palm toxic to pets?

According to the ASPCA, the Christmas tree palm is not toxic to pets. However, any substance can cause GI upset if ingested in large amounts, so keep your pets away from this tree if they like to nosh on whatever they find! You also can cut off the flowers before the 1- to 2-inch long oval fruits develop to avoid this worry (or if you just don’t want the mess!).

Why is my Christmas palm getting yellow leaves?

Uh oh. This may be due to a fatal plant disease called lethal yellowing, which causes wilting and discoloration of the foliage. “These palms are very susceptible to this disease, but it occurs only in Christmas tree palms in Florida landscapes,” says McMillan. It’s caused by a phytoplasma transmitted by an insect called a planthopper. Sadly, there’s no cure once your tree is affected, though it can be prevented with regular trunk injections of an antibiotic (which is not something most homeowners can do). If you’re worried about your palm, contact your local university coop extension service (find yours here).

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