Pygmy Date Palm Information: How To Grow Pygmy Date Palm Trees

Gardeners seeking a palm tree specimen to accent the garden or home will want to know how to grow the pygmy date palm tree. Pygmy palm growing is relatively simple given suitable conditions, though pruning pygmy palm trees is sometimes necessary to keep its growth manageable, especially in smaller settings.

Pygmy Date Palm Information

More significant than its name implies, the pygmy date palm tree (Phoenix roebelenii) is a member of the family Arecaceae, a huge group with over 2,600 species found in tropical and subtropical climates of the world. Pygmy palm growing is used in a variety of interiorscapes and commercial plantings due to its graceful form and height of 6 to 10 feet.

Pygmy date palm information allows that this particular genus is known as a date palm due to its often sweet, sugary fruit pulp found in some species of Arecaceae. Its genus, Phoenix, encompasses only a small portion of the Arecaceae family counted at about 17 species.

Pygmy date palm trees have small, yellow hued flowers, which give way

to tiny purplish dates born on a thin solitary trunk with deep green fronds forming a crown. Insignificant thorns also grow on the leaf stalks.

How to Grow Pygmy Date Palm Trees

This palm tree hails from Southeast Asia and, therefore, thrives in USDA zones 10-11, which mimic conditions found in those areas of Asia.

In USDA zones 10-11, temperatures do not routinely dip below 30 F. (-1 C.); however, the tree has been known to survive in USDA zone 9b (20 to 30 degrees F. or -6 to -1 C.) without significant frost protection. That said, the pygmy palms may do well as a container specimen on a deck or patio during the summer months in the Midwest, but will need to be overwintered indoors before the first frost.

Pygmy date palm trees grow along riverbanks with sun to partial shade exposure and, hence, require significant irrigation and rich organic soil to truly flourish.

Care for a Pygmy Date Palm

To care for a pygmy date palm, be sure to maintain a regular watering schedule and plant this tree in sandy, well-drained soil in an area of sun all the way to full shade. When grown in soil with a pH over 7, the tree may develop magnesium or potassium deficiency with symptoms of chlorotic or spotted fronds.

Pygmy palms have moderate drought tolerance and are mostly resistant to disease and pests; however, leaf spot and bud rot may afflict this type of palm.

Pruning Pygmy Palm Trees

The up to 6-foot long fronds of the pygmy palm tree may occasionally need reining in. Pruning pygmy palm trees is not a daunting task and merely requires periodical removal of aged or diseased foliage.

Other maintenance of the tree may include some clean up of spent leaves or removal of offshoots as the propagation method for this palm is via seed dispersal.

Pygmy Date Palm

Phoenix roebelenii

When it comes to filling up those tight spaces in your landscape or even that empty space between your bigger palms, an ideal palm for use in Southern California is the Phoenix roebelenii, also known as the Pygmy Date Palm.

At Moon Valley Nursery, we have custom grown all of our Pygmy Date Palms from our best specimens at our farms ranging from Southern California the Arizona desert. Our climate and special Super Palm Juice fertilizer generates thicker trunks, fuller crowns, and more robust roots for the Pygmy Date Palm. This separates our Pygmy Date Palms from other you’ll see at other nurseries. Our look better than the average Pygmy Date Palm, perform better, thrive in hot full sun, and are more cold hardy than typical Pygmy Date Palms.

Pygmy Date Palms can be used in many landscape applications. Depending on your need, we carry both single and multi-trunk varieties. Its versatility and dwarf growth pattern allow it to be planted in tight spaces around pools, patios, courtyards, and pots. The Pygmy Date Palm can also be grown in shade and its roots and non-invasive. This allows it to be a fantastic option for planting under larger palms, in between palms, or in a cluster.

Hailing from Southeast Asia, Pygmy Date Palms are one of the cleanest palm varieties. They require minimal maintenance and only needs to be pruned when the soft looking foliage turns brown. They require minimal water and it is a slow growing palm. It is adaptable to a wide range of soil.

Pygmy Date Palm

Scales:

There are many species of scales that are commonly found in indoor house or greenhouse plants. Some species of the insect can have an armored shell like covering that will protect its entire form while others will have none at all. Those with the waxy shell can have its protection removed by simply scraping it away. It is easiest to tell the difference as the soft scales (no armored protection) produce honeydew while the armored scales will not. Scales feed on your plant by sucking on the plant’s sap. This will promote poor growth which will eventually stunt the growth of your plant. It can also lead to your plant being infested to sooty mold.

The most practical thing to do for your first attempt at cleaning up your plant from its infestation is to use soap and water to wash off the leaves and stems. If your plant is heavily infested, you can try an insecticide spray schedule on your plant that involves 2 to 3 sprays a week every two weeks. It is usually best to discard the plant however before the infestation can spread.

Spider Mites:

Spider Mites look like tiny dots on the underside of your plant leaf. They usually live in large groups, so you will definitely see more than one of these tiny dots in a group on the plant. Spider Mites are known as such from the silk webbing that they leave behind on infested leaves. This presence of webbing is the best indication that your plant may be infested. Another good indication that your plant might be infested with this pest or another is by studying your plants leaf. If you begin to notice the leaves are covered a lot of yellow pin pricks that may be a good indication.

Spider mites usually become a problem on outdoor plants after certain insecticides have been sprayed that may have killed the natural enemies of the mite. The best thing to do when dealing with Spider Mites is to find an insecticidal soap that you can use to wipe down the leaves. It is advised that you test out the insecticidal soap on a small portion of the plant before applying it to the whole plant. For indoor plants the best course of action is to remove or isolate the plant from the home to minimize possible spreading to other nearby plants. If only a small portion of the plant is infested, clip that section and dispose of the clippings. If the entire plant is infested and the plant holds no sentimental value best thing to do is dispose of the plant. If you want to try and save the plant do not waste your time with pesticides as they usually won’t have any effect on this pest. Treat the plant with an insecticidal soap every couple of weeks to help kill or keep the mites in control.

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.

Fruit (c) Mmcknight4 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

(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.

The Pygmy Date Palm,
Phoenix roebelenii – the Dwarf
Date Palm

By
Phil Bergman, Jungle Music

INTRODUCTION

NATURAL HABITAT AND HISTORY

Phoenix palms can be found native to many areas of the world. Phoenix roebelenii, however, has its origins in Asia, specifically in Southern China. Laos and Vietnam. Perhaps its exact origin is in Laos. In these localities, the Pygmy dates grows in more humid areas and is often seen along river beds. In habitat, this species is often a suckering species with thinner trunks and sparse crowns. It was named after a 19th century botanist from plants collected in Laos. Fifty years ago it was thought that this species never got above six feet. I suspect this was because specimens in domestic gardens at that time had not had the time to get larger. Presently specimens can be found that are ten feet or taller.

Older Phoenix roebelenii,
single, in a garden

Older Pygmy Date double in a domestic
garden.

APPEARANCE AND MORPHOLOGY OF THE PYGMY DATE PALM

When old and mature, specimen Pygmy Date Palms are typically between six to ten feet in overall height. Pictures here show single trunk specimens, either as a single plant or a grouping of multiple plants. As mentioned above, several plants are often put into the same container to give the appearance that this dwarf date palm actually suckers. As mentioned above, this confuses people because in habitat it is often seen suckering. But, somewhere along its development as a commercial palm, this species has lost the ability to sucker. Seeds collected from wild habitats often do sucker, especially with seeds from Laos. Domestic seeds typically don’t sucker. But, the average plant you see in a nursery is a single trunk palm, often planted as a “multiple”.

Well grown single trunk
Pygmy Date Palm

Triple Pygmy Date in a front
yard

Another triple Phoenix
roebelenii

The trunks are quite thin, averaging three to six inches in diameter. They are typically thick with fibers right below the crown of leaves. With age and when old leaf base debris is removed, the trunks take on a bit of a “knobby” appearance with remnants of old proximal leaf bases. The trunks can be straight or somewhat curved. If planted at an angle, plants will eventually go upwards toward the sun. This gives them a curve in the stem. The upper trunk below the crown shows lots of retained leaf bases. It’s further down the trunk that the knobby appearance is seen when cleaned.

The leaves of the Dwarf Date Palm are typically three to five feet long on specimens. The leaflet color is typically glossy green, silver-green, or darker green when grown in filtered light. The crown is often described as “delicate”, “soft”, or “lush”. The overall crown is rounded with as many as thirty to fifty leaves. The leaf stems (petioles) are armed near their base with sharp spines that can be as long as three inches. Protective eyewear should be used when pruning or cleaning this species.

Triple Pygmy Dates near entry sidewalk

Single Dwarf Date Palm near entry sidewalk

Being a dioeciously palm, any given Pygmy Palm is either a male or female. This means, that to set pure viable seeds, one must have both sexes in proximity. Insects will typically transfer male pollen to the female. If no male is around, hybrid seeds are often produced from pollen of other nearby Phoenix species. Flowers with seeds hang below the crown and can have several hundred seeds per blossom stem. Seeds change from green to black when mature and are typically one half inch or smaller in size.

HOW TO GROW PYGMY DATE PALMS

Phoenix roebelenii are fairly easy to grow. They survive well in tropical and temperate regions. In coastal areas with good humidity, this species prefers full sun. Further inland and in desert areas, they do best in filtered light or partial sun. Plants along the coast that are in dense shade tend to be lanky and perform poorly. They can even die in full shade. Therefore, it’s best to give them some exposure to sunlight. They like rich, good draining soil. Clay can be tolerated if not overwatered. Average watering schedule is three times a week although specimens can tolerate a bit of drought. With ample water, Pygmy Date Palms have a more lush, tropical appearance.

The Pygmy Date can be planted as a single stem specimen, and as a single will show more rapid growth than groupings of multiple plants. In other words, a single stem plant will put on height more quickly if there is less adjacent competition for nutrition. Most commonly, when purchased, the Pygmy Dates are in groups of three. They can show stair stepping in size, although this is not always seen. This means that one plant is tallest, one shortest, and one in the middle. The picture below shows three fairly matched plants.

Pygmy Date large triple (nursery)

Pygmy Date large single (nursery)

As this species is grown in huge numbers commercially, most plants sold at depot type stores are imported from more tropical regions where production is quicker. One might find locally grown specimens (from your locality) to be more vigorous after planting. Imported plants might also need acclimation to your sunlight. I have noted that plants brought in from tropical areas often have very thin trunks whereas plants grown locally here in Southern California have fatter, more robust trunks.

Growth rates of Pygmy Date Palms are slow to medium in speed. A small specimen of two feet height can obtain a height of six or more feet in five to seven years. Germination of seeds typically takes three to six months and gives a single blade of grass type seedling. Seedlings should be grown in filtered light until they are vigorous one gallon plants.

COLD TOLERANCE OF PYGMY DATE PALMS

There are many factors which affect cold tolerance of the Pygmy Date, but in general it is felt that this species tolerates temperatures down to the mid-twenties F or perhaps a bit lower. Temperatures in the teens will kill Pygmy Dates. If one lives in a colder climate, the Pygmy Date Palm is far from the most cold hardy Phoenix. In such a situation one should consider species such as Phoenix canariensis, Phoenix dactylifera, Phoenix theophrastii or almost any other species. These alternative species, however, don’t have that miniature size and charm of the Pygmy Date. On can cold protect this species to some degree by wrapping the crown with protective cloth or by other techniques. It is surprising that large chain stores continue to sell Dwarf Date Palms in localities where most likely they will die.

HYBRIDS WITH THE PYGMY DATE PALM AND SINGLE AND MULTIPLE TRUNK FORMS

As previously mentioned, the Pygmy Date Palm like all Phoenix species has a high tendency to hybridize with other species among the genus. Thus, one gets all sorts of offspring variations. Some feel this might even be one of the mechanisms whereby the Pygmy Date became a single trunk plant. Regarding hybrids, I have seen crosses between the Phoenix roebelenii and the huge Canary Island Palm. The offspring are a suckering plant with huge trunks as you would expect. Some feel that the common Pygmy Date propagated in Florida tends to have a more coarse and larger leaf than other “more pure” strains. This might represent hybridization. The bottom line is: if you collect seeds off your Pygmy Date Palm and didn’t control pollination, you’ll probably end up with a hybrid.

As mentioned above, in the wild the Pygmy Date is often seen as a suckering species. The photograph below shows a true suckering habit from seed collected in the wild in Laos. Not that the “sucker” is coming directly off the parent trunk.

Compare the growth habit above to two single trunk Pygmy Date young plants that were grown, side by side, in one pot (below). Both appear similar, but careful examination shows that the two trunks below are not attached but rather just side by side. The plant above is a naturally suckering plant from Laos. Below are separate, individually planted plants. Below is what you see in most nurseries, although the number of plants per pot does vary.

In summary,99.5% of Pygmy Dates grown in the U.S. are single trunk yet sometimes planted as “multiples”. Yet, in the wild in Asia, they are quite often suckering plants. And, if you get seeds from your female Pygmy Date and didn’t control pollination, the chances are you will get a hybrid and it may sucker. But, it won’t appear quite like plants from the wild.

PECULIAR FORMS OF PHOENIX ROEBELENII

When one grows palms for quite a while, one sees unusual things. There are forms of a plant called “crested” (or showing fasciation) which have, for some unknown reason, the appearance of multiple growth points at the top of the stem. There is another thing called “monstrose” where a single trunk plant begins to fork and divide for no apparent reason. Sometimes a crested form can change into the montrose form. Pygmy Date Palms have shown both of these peculiar variations. Interestingly enough, when a plant develops one of these “abnormalities”, it actually becomes more valuable to some collectors. This is because it is rare. The pictures below show what appears to be a crested Pygmy Date Palm. This is seen with four plants in a single front yard. There is only speculation as to what caused this. Some feel it could be genetic, others say it’s environmental. Environmental factors might include chemicals, infections, disease, etc. Pauleen Sullivan in Ventura, CA tells a story about how her husband grew several hundred Pygmy Dates and about ten to twenty years later these palms all began branching at the same time and at various locations. This would suggest something genetic as they were all sold and went to various areas of Southern California. I mention this abnormality because you may see them as you look around at palms.

Group of four Pygmy Dates with
crested crown of leaves

A closer view of two plants

Close-up of one of the trees above. Note
how multiple growth heads are emerging.


Pygmy Date monstrose form with
branching of the trunk

A good illustration of the montrose Pygmy Date

DIGGING AND TRANSPLANTING THE PYGMY DATE PALM

Even though many large Phoenix specimens are successfully dug and replanted elsewhere, digging and moving a Pygmy Date Palm is many times difficult. This is probably the result of the viewpoint that they are small and therefore a man or two can dig them up and move them. Statistically, most dug Pygmy Dates don’t make it. This could be a combination of the species dislike for being transplanted and too small of a root ball. If you have a good sized Pygmy and want to move it, get a root ball that is enormous; one that takes three or four men to lift and move. Otherwise, you probably will be wasting your time. A crane transferred root ball would be preferred for all but the smallest of plants. If a dug Pygmy Date Palm is having difficulty, you will first see trouble with the newest leaves or speared. After digging, a Pygmy Date’s shock is evident by the dug plants failure to open up new leaves. Such a plant can show four to five new spears, none of which has opened. Leaves may appear limp and hang downwards. Or, they may show decline with a brown or dead color. The plant below shows limp, drooping leaves probably the result of a transplant.

Decline of a transplanted
Pygmy Date Palm

PRUNING OF THE PYGMY DATE PALM

Basically, pruning a Phoenix roebelenii is similar to pruning other types of palm trees with the exception that protective eyewear should be used on any palm with spines. And, the Pygmy Date Palm definitely has some nasty spines. They are not huge but can hurt you or injure your eye if you are not protected. When removing leaves, start at the bottom of the crown of leaves and remove the lowest leaves that have turned brown and are ugly. Removing green leaves results in loss of chlorophyll or plant energy. Remove one leaf at a time and work your way up to healthy looking leaves and stop there. Be careful when putting leaves in the trash as the spines have a way of whipping around and hitting you.

You can also tidy up the trunk of the Dwarf Date Palm. This is referred to above. One can remove the old leaf debris and fibers down to the actual woody trunk. This will result in the “knobs” of the trunk being visible. Such a pruned trunk is quite appealing and interesting. Similar but larger appearances are seen on other species such as the True Date Palm, Phoenix dactylifera. Also, when one cleans the trunk up to the top where the most recently removed leaves are more adherent, one can make a “pineapple” just like they do with the Canary Island Date Palm.

If no pruning is done whatsoever, old leaves will hang down near the trunk and, over time, the plant will become very unsightly and more prone to disease. Fusarium infections, which afflict the Phoenix canariensis would be most rare with the Pygmy Date Palm. In any case, cleaning of pruning equipment prior to trimming the tree might be in order.

Single trunk Pygmy Date Palm
that has been cleaned to show
a “pinapple top”

A close-up of the “pineapple”

The “knobby” trunk of a
cleaned Pygmy Date Palm

Pygmy Date cleaned to show
knobby trunk

PESTS ON PYGMY DATE PALMS

Phoenix roebelenii are usually considered a near pest free species. However, insect pests can infect them. Most common would be some form of scale. This is a small, dome shaped insect that is quite easy to recognize. These pests suck nutrition from the plant. Other pests to watch for would include mealy bug and aphids. Crawling large insects such as weevils and grasshoppers have been known to feed on the Pygmy Date Palms. All of these insects can be controlled with insecticides or beneficial predator insects/animals. Sometimes bad looking leaves are secondary to nutritional deficiencies. If you see no insects and yellow spots on the leaves, try giving some fertilizer or microelements.

SUMMARY COMMENTS ON THE PYGMY DATE PALM

The Pygmy Date Palm or Dwarf Date Palm, Latin name Phoenix roebelenii, is a very popular single trunk palm that is most often sold as multiple plants in the same pot. However, in the wild, it often suckers naturally. It is also called the Dwarf Date Palm and often (misspelled) as the roebelenii palm. This is a somewhat small palm, usually not getting over ten feet in overall height. The leaves are glossy green and leaf stems are armed with spines. Protective eye ware should be used when pruning. Growth is fairly easy. This species prefers full sun unless one is in a harsh desert environment where filtered light might be optimal. Average water is needed. Like other types of Phoenix, the Pygmy Date Palm will hybridize with other species giving a whole array of different appearing offspring. Male and female plants are needed to set fertile seeds. Typically plants are fairly pest free and pruning can accentuate the “knobby trunk” or be pruned to show a miniature “pineapple” below the leaves. Like all palms, the Pygmy Date Palm needs fertilizer and microelements or leaves may begin to look bad.

Thanks for reading this. As you may have noticed, we have lots of interesting articles at our site on palm trees and cycads. Hit “Home” to see the list of more articles to review.

Phil Bergman

Owner

Jungle Music Palms, Cycads and Tropical Plants
Nursery Location: 450 Ocean View Ave., Encinitas, CA 92024
Nursery Hours: 9AM to 4PM, Monday through Saturday
Nursery Phone: 619 291 4605
Email: [email protected]

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Last modified: June 27, 2017

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