Clumping stems lined with exotic, fan-like fronds of deep green makes the lady palm (Rhapis spp.) an attractive plant for the tropical garden. Tolerating low light both indoors and out, it grows in the shade of trees or buildings or in the dark corner of a den or bedroom. The fronds must be dusted with a damp cloth to keep them healthy and looking glossy and attractive.
"Lady palm" is a generalized common name assigned to any palm in the botanical genus Rhapis, comprising 12 species. Typically only two species enjoy widespread cultivation in tropical gardens: the tall lady palm (Rhapis excelsa) and the slender lady palm (Rhapis humilis).
Both the tall lady palm and the slender lady palm no longer grow naturally in the wild. All modern plants exist because of repeated vegetative or seedling production from plants that botanists believe to have origins in southern China and Taiwan. These palms grew on limestone hills and cliffs, and throughout evergreen forests.
Lady palms develop into large clumps of thin stems covered in brown to charcoal-gray, thatchy fibers. Their leathery leaves become pleated on finger-like segments numbering 12 to 25. These fronds resemble deeply cut fans.
Large lady palm fronds remain stiff with blunt jagged tips and never look droopy, with stems growing to 10 feet long and no greater than 1 inch in diameter. Tiny flower clusters form in stem tops in summer, developing into small greenish-white fruits. Many dwarf-sized varieties developed in Japan bear variegated white or yellow striped or speckled fronds.
Slender lady palm grows to 20 feet tall with narrower diameter stems in clumps that do not look as dense. Its fronds are longer, less rigid and droop gracefully with pointed tips. This species does not produce fruits, since all flowers are male.
Both species of lady palm thrive in partial sun to heavy shade. They can handle upwards of 6 to 8 hours of direct sun in the early morning or early evening daily, needing shade from the midday sun when temperatures reach above 80 degrees F. With too much intense light, the deep-green leaves becomes yellow-green.
Both species grow slowly, but hasten if planted in moist, acidic, organic-rich soil that remains warm year-round. They tolerate drier soils but growth rates slow drastically.
Large lady palm are tolerant to cold down to the lower 20s, making it suitable for outdoor gardens in USDA hardiness zones 9 through 12. Slender lady palm tolerates temperatures no colder than 15 degrees F, corresponding to warmer parts of zones 8 through 12.
Lady palm makes good vertical accents in shaded building foundation beds or small courtyard gardens, or grouped in rows to form a hedge or screen. They grow well in containers, too, making them pleasant for patios or under pool-side awnings.
Lady palms also assimilate nicely as house plants, which is how lady palms must be grown in cold winter climates. They tolerate low light, dry air and typical "I forgot to water them" conditions that occur in most homes.