Palm trees (family Arecaceae) range from under 2 feet to more than 200 feet tall, depending on the species. Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 12, there's a palm for every garden or landscape, though your choices may be limited by the size of the space and your climate. To keep a palm from growing tall, plant the tree in a flowerpot or select a naturally small species for your garden.
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About Palm Trees
While the tall, swaying fronds of palm trees call to mind the warm tropics, some species tolerate temperatures down to -5 degrees Fahrenheit for short periods of time. There are more than 2,600 palm tree species worldwide.
The smallest known palm tree is the Dypsis minuta, a native of Madagascar. At less than 2 feet tall, this tiny palm thrives in USDA zones 10b through 11. Meanwhile, the 200-foot-tall wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense), a native of Colombia and Peru, prefers USDA zones 8 through 11. More familiar palm species include the date (Phoenix spp.) and coconut (Cocos nucifera) palms, hardy in USDA zones 9 through 11 and 10 through 12, respectively.
Choose Naturally Small Palm Trees
The easiest way to keep a palm from growing tall is to choose a naturally small palm tree species that will thrive in your climate. Even though there are a multitude of palm species, the availability of a specific palm may vary in your area.
The windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is known for its cold hardiness in USDA zones 7 through 10 and generally grows from 8 to 10 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide. The needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) and dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) thrive in wind-protected gardens in USDA zones 6 through 10. The dwarf palmetto grows up to 6 feet tall, while the needle palm may reach 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Though both are attractive additions to home landscapes, the needle palm is best used as a backdrop due to its needle-sharp spines.
Heat-loving palms that also produce edible fruits include the pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii) and jelly, or pindo, palm (Butia capitata). The dates produced by the 6- to 10-foot-tall tree in USDA zones 10 through 12 are edible, but seedy, while the sweet yellow-orange fruits of the jelly palm grow on 10- to 20-foot-tall trees in USDA zones 9 through 11. Jelly palm fruits are fibrous, so while they can be eaten fresh, they're more often used to make preserves and wine.
Potted Palm Trees
Frost-tender palms may not survive the colder winter temperatures in zone 9 and below, so consider moving your potted palm trees indoors to enjoy a year-round tropical ambiance. In addition to selecting smaller, slow-growing species, keeping the tree in a container can help slow or stunt its growth.
The classic Victorian palm, the parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans) grows up to 6 feet tall in USDA zones 10 through 11. Like other palms, the parlor palm prefers an evenly moist soil; water when the soil is dry to a depth of 1 inch. It tolerates low light conditions, though it prefers bright filtered light or a north-facing window. Fertilize your potted palms with a slow-release palm fertilizer once or twice a year.
When a potted palm tree outgrows its pot in two to three years, move it to a new container, not more than 2 inches wider than its previous home. Slide the tree out of the pot and replant with fresh potting mix at the same depth as the tree was in the previous container. If repotting in the same or a smaller container to slow the tree's growth, prune the roots as needed with sterilized scissors or pruners. Because the tree can be damaged if you remove too much of the root ball, avoid trimming more than necessary.
Palm Trees Outdoors
Generally, trying to stunt the growth of an existing outdoor palm tree will eventually damage or even kill the tree. Cutting the trunk or topping a palm tree in an attempt to slow its growth will kill the tree, as will vigorously pruning its roots. If the tree has outgrown the space, consider removing it and planting a naturally smaller species.
Clean up your palm tree once or twice a year by pruning dead fronds and removing the flowers and fruits before they drop from the tree. Wear safety goggles, thorn-proof gloves and other safety gear; some palm trees have sharp, saw-toothed branches and spines. If working with a tall palm tree, consider hiring a professional tree trimming service.
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Trachycarpus Fortunei
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Rhapidophyllum Hystrix
- San Diego Zoo Animals and Plants: Pindo Palm (Jelly Palm)
- North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox: Phoenix Roebelenii
- Clemson Cooperative Extension: Indoor Palms
- University of Vermont Department of Plant and Soil Science: Easy Houseplants — Indoor Palms
- Clemson University Extension: Palms & Cycads
Ruth de Jauregui is the author of 50 Fabulous Tomatoes for Your Garden. She writes numerous home and garden articles for a variety of online publications. She got her start as a book and cover designer in San Francisco for William (Bill) Yenne at American Graphic Systems. In addition to designing books, she wrote her first book, Ghost Towns. With several nonfiction books under her belt, de Jauregui recently published her first novel, Bitter.