The Elfin Palms of Central America and their Cultivation
As growing space comes at an ever-increasing premium, many tropical plant collectors are taking a pass on having palms in their collections. While all rare and difficult to find, those shown here are the Crown Jewels of Neotropical palms. With a bit of luck and creative cultivation, many can be adapted to flower and fruit in small spaces.
Elfin palms endemic to the region include members of the genera Chamaedorea, Geonoma, Reinhardtia and Calyptrogyne. A few species extend their ranges from Guatemala north into southeastern México and from Panamá's Darién Province east into northwestern Colombia.
All of these species have made their way into cultivation outside of their home ranges, even the Critically Endangered Chamaedorea piscifolia.
The image bank here is currently dominated by photos taken in situ throughout the region. Over the next few months, more images of cultivated elfin and smaller understory palms will be added, as well as specific recommendations to succeed with these often temperamental beauties in captivity.
One of my automated small terraria in California used for establishing delicate Central American and Panamanian palm seedlings from germination boxes at my home prior to moving them into a more conventional greenhouse environment. This is a 24”/60 cm tall unit used as temporary staging only. There are three distinct ecotypes of Chamaedorea tuerckheimii shown here, two in flower (both sexes), several C. verecunda, C. palmeriana and a single Geonoma hugonis. The palms are all planted in soilless growing media in 3.5”/9 cm tall pots. Lighting, ventilation and mist system are all on timers. RO/distilled water is used for charging the mist system.
Taller commercial terraria (39”/1 m), combined with T5 and LED lighting are superb containers for growing many of these tricky palmlet species to flowering size. Several regional species can be grown to full size in these larger Wardian Cases and terraria.
(clicking on or hovering cursor over images here will display additional information and open them in an expanded lightbox)
Four species of dwarf reinhardtias occur in southeastern México and Central America. The smallest (and rarest) “windowpane” species is the solitary Reinhardtia koschnyana that occurs discontinuously from Honduran Mosquitia southeast into the Darién Province of Panamá and the Colombian Chocó. This beautiful miniature palm has so far eluded almost every effort to bring it into cultivation outside of its range countries. Two others are shown below in nature, while the fourth (R. elegans) is a rather challenging palm to encounter in nature in the middle elevation cloud forests of Oaxaca and Chiapas, México, as well as western Guatemala and northern Honduras. The much larger and commonly-cultivated R. latisecta shares habitats with the three lowland species throughout their ranges.
Stained glass palms (Geonoma epetiolata) are a widespread but localized understory premontane rainforest species in Costa Rica and Panamá. They require undisturbed or very lightly disturbed climax forest to thrive, but can be locally abundant under optimum conditions at some remote sites. These heart-breakingly beautiful palms have proven to be very challenging in cultivation outside of Central America and parts of Hawaii. This is one of the most coveted palms originating from the region, and many have been collected from wild populations since its discovery in the 1970s only to die in captivity. They have been artificially produced to F1 in a handful of collections in Queensland, Hawaii and Panamá, but remain very rare in collections worldwide. Wild-collected seed sporadically appears on the market but often shows poor germination. Seedlings are extremely prone to sudden declines and loss until they are about three years old. Outside of fully wet tropical conditions, these palms do best in warm mist chambers charged with pure water and - frankly - overall, require horticultural skills that exceed most growers’ abilities. Stained glass palms are variable across populations, with the highest-color forms originating from the very wet foothill forests of northern Costa Rica and western Panamá. While almost entirely restricted to Caribbean slope localities, they also occur on the Pacific side of the Continental Divide at a few sites in central Panamá. Their closest relative appears to be the somewhat similar, dwarf Geonoma hugonis from cloud forests of the Chiriquí highlands in western Panamá that also has undivided leaves and colorful new growth. This species appears to require cool nights to thrive, but is otherwise less finicky than G. epetiolata.
Young seed-grown examples of two very rare and challenging Central American elfin palms, greenhoused in Guatemala (2008); Chamaedorea tenerrima on the left and C. robertii on the right.
Dwarf form of Chamaedorea cf. nubium, Lempira Department, western Honduras in cultivation in California. This population is characterized by plants that mature between 4-5’/1.25-1.55 m in height, which is approximately one third the height of large C. nubium from central Guatemala and Chiapas, México. The plant shown is a particularly compact clone, mature at 11 years from seed and ~30”/75 cm in height. Other than susceptibility to spider mites, this palm is an outstanding selection for small growing areas and has shown excellent tolerance for cold temperatures overnight. Unfortunately, very few plants from this population are in cultivation and most are male.
Geonoma monospatha, tall pinnate form, western Panamá (images: F. Muller).
Above, several examples of the elegant cloud forest southern Central American palm, Geonoma monospatha, in Veraguas, Panamá (Images: F. Muller). A number of the smaller Middle American geonomas are polymorphic and have very striking-colored new leaves. All require cool nights and pure water to thrive.
Below, mature undisturbed lower montane rainforest habitats in northern (Caribbean versant) and southern (Pacific versant) Central America. This type of permanently cool tropical and perhumid ecosystem often harbors a diversity of dwarf species of several palm genera in close sympatry at any given locality. The future of all of the most beautiful Central American elfin palms depends on preserving large rainforest blocks at middle elevations throughout the region.