Palms do not grow in a similar manner as other common garden plants like woody shrubs, trees and herbaceous perennials. Palms grow only from stem or trunk tips. Therefore, do not haphazardly prune back a palm hoping it will rejuvenate with more leaves or at a smaller size.
Besides being discussed as having either round, hand-like fronds or feathery fronds, palms may be grouped by their growth habit. There are solitary palms, those that develop one trunk with a leaf cluster on top and clustering palms. Cabbage, royal, windmill and foxtail palms are solitary palms. Clustering palm species sprout numerous stems or trunks from their roots to create a dense thicket. Cluster-type palms include parlor, lady, paurotis and areca palms. Sometimes nursery growers plant multiple palms in one container so it looks clustered.
Palm stem and trunk tissues are not like those of woody trees or shrubs. Once a palm is cut back into barren stem or trunk tissues, the cells do not differentiate and create new sprouting leaves. Palms only grow from active growth tips, sometimes called crownshafts. If you cut off the growth tip, that stem or trunk remains barren and it eventually dies. Clustering palms continually sprout new stems with growth tips, so if one stem is pruned or dies, a root sprout exists already to replace it. Little sprouts are called "pups" or "suckers." Any singular leaf frond may be removed as needed.
Reasons to Cut a Palm Back
Palms killed by severe cold, drought or disease are often cut back to the ground if a property owner cannot afford to have the trunk and root ball removed. The palm is cut flush with the soil and allowed to decompose. Clustering palms may be cut back and allowed to rejuvenate as long as there are tiny growth shoots already present when upright stems or trunks are cut away. You cannot chop off the tops of the shoots, because the growing tip is the only place they produce new leaves.
Unfortunately, if you grow a palm indoors as a houseplant, the inevitable circumstance arises that a palm grows too tall and reaches the ceiling. You cannot prune the palm stems back without removing growth tips. Areca, lady and parlor palms may be trimmed so that the largest, problematic stems are removed, but shorter sprouts remain. Solitary palms, which cannot be cut back, need to be discarded or relocated to a larger room.