Monday, March 10, 2008

Samurai in a Dress (Rhapis excelsa)

I got one of these at the end of January, after admiring them at work for a long time. The hold-up was money: Rhapis excelsa grows so slowly that decent-sized specimens are usually pretty pricey, and I had a hard time justifying the expense to myself (they were priced at $30: I do get an employee discount, but still). The good news is, I am weak, and didn't put up much of a fight, so now I have this:

According to this site, a plant the size of mine, in a six-inch pot, is probably about two years old. This may not sound particularly old, but a similarly-sized Syngonium podophyllum might be six months or less. If you could produce four crops of Syngonium or one crop of Rhapis, then it's only worth your time to do the Rhapis if you can get four times as much money for it. And so. Other slow-growing plants, like Aspidistra elatior and Zamioculcas zamiifolia, have similar issues, and also tend to be expensive for their size.

I've never seen anything especially ladylike about Rhapis, despite its common name of "lady palm." I mean, I do code plants as male and female in my head,1 and I was anthropomorphizing plants well before I started doing it for the blog here, but the Rhapis = female idea has never sat that well with me. It sits even less well with me now that I've spent some time with them, because it's the only plant I've ever seen that broke out of a plastic pot. I've seen plants break clay pots, I've seen plants lift themselves out of pots, I've seen plants bend the hell out of plastic pots, but driving right through a pot is a new one. Witness:

So if it looks like a lady to you, that's fine, but to me it's gonna be a guy. A really strong, kinda pissed-off, guy, with weapons.

Male, female, both, or neither,2 this is a plant with a long and kind of cool history. The Japanese call it kannonchiku,3 which translates roughly as "Kannon's bamboo," Kannon being the Japanese version of the name of a Buddhist Bodhisattva.4 The connection between plant and goddess is a location: Okinawa Island, which is both the site of some early kannonchiku cultivation and also home to a temple in honor of Kannon.

Statue of Kannon. Photos by Sean Brown at Lost. Used by permission.

There are literally hundreds of named varieties, each with their own genealogy and history, which appear to be periodically re-ranked into better and worse varieties by people who clearly have too much time on their hands.5 Some so-so pictures of different types can be found at the previous link, or at this one.

In any case, the plant is native to southern China and Taiwan, but isn't found in the wild anymore: the Chinese still have some, but it's all cultivated, and the Japanese seem to be much bigger fans of the plant but theirs is entirely from introduced stock. The move from China to Japan happened around the year 1700, and Rhapis excelsa had been cultivated in China for a short time before that. The plant didn't come to the United States until the early 1900s; according to the super-duper fancy-schmancy growers' guide, the original specimens brought over are still growing at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA, though I couldn't find any confirmation of that at the HBG website, and anyway the growers' guide in question (see sidebar) is ten years old, so it could have been true in 1998 but not anymore.

The main interest in Japanese circles looks to be twofold: there's a lot of attention given to plants that are variegated, and also they like dwarf varieties, whether naturally dwarfed or grown as bonsai-type specimens. Having a good-quality, reproducible plant can be worth truly insane amounts of money: the "Eizannishiki" variety pictured at the top of this page has reportedly sold for $25,000. I don't know whether that was $25,000 for a single stem, or $25,000 for a twenty-cane, six-foot-tall plant, but after you pass a certain amount of money, I think it no longer matters. The $25,000 is only a "reportedly" number, but there's apparently good documentation on an "Eizannishiki" offset, a single offset, selling for $10,000 in 1970. If The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis is to be believed, that translates as $55,567.01 in 2008 dollars. (If you thought $30 for a 6-inch pot was pricey, I'm guessing it looks more reasonable now.) If you're interested in a variegated Rhapis, the only place I know of to refer you to is Asiatica Nursery, though you should be warned that the very minimum you'd be paying for a single plant (in a 3.5-inch / 9 cm pot), with delivery and everything included, is going to be between about $85 and $100, depending on where you live. If you're in Canada, if I read the site right, there's a minimum order of $500, so it's even worse. But I think anybody would concede that some of those cultivars look pretty damned cool.

Rhapis excelsa is not the only species in the genus Rhapis, though it's the most commonly cultivated one: the most serious competitor is R. humilis, which is similar-looking but has narrower leaves, is taller at maturity, and is more sun-tolerant.6 There are a handful of other species in cultivation, but they all have the same general appearance to them, and differ mostly in height and culture.

Which, speaking of culture: these are supposed to be very easy palms to grow. Obviously I'm still getting to know my personal plant, but the ones at work have been more or less agreeable, and the gist on-line is that they're pretty unproblematic, as palms go. We do lose one every once in a while, for reasons which aren't all that clear to me (I suspect glitches in the watering), but on certain counts, they're the best plants ever.

These aren't particularly subject to disease or insect attack. Scale happens occasionally, I'm told, and some sites say to watch for spider mites, but they're more resistant to mites than most plants. They're also unbelievably forgiving about temperatures and light levels: they can take light freezes,7 and as they are naturally understory plants, dim light is usually not a problem. They are said to prefer cooler indoor temperatures than most houseplants, though growth will slow to a stop if they're below about 50 or 60ºF (10-16ºC) for long periods. Rhapis excelsa prefers higher humidity if they can get it, but adapt fine to low humidity. There seems to be consensus that they're not heavy feeders. Watering is best done when they soil has gotten almost completely dry: if you go too long, the leaves will become darker and dry-looking, and will also droop. So they're pretty low-maintenance.

Because of their slow growth, there are a few problems Rhapis growers may encounter in the long term, though:

Soil choice is a bigger consideration than usual, because they're likely to be in the same soil for longer periods. Given enough time, the various components of soil will break down, and when this happens, the smaller soil particles can settle around roots more tightly, constricting and suffocating them. Rhapis palms are also more susceptible than most to fluoride, which cuts options down a little further.

The growers' guide recommends pine bark, sand, leached (washed) perlite, and sphagnum peat; I don't know that I agree with the sphagnum, but the other components are okay. Fired coarse clay particles, like Turface or "soils" for aquatic plants, are a good addition as well, since they promote drainage without retaining a lot of water themselves. A soil mix for Rhapis should drain pretty rapidly and freely: you do want it to hold some water, but it's imperative that it be able to dry out too. Perlite, which is usually a good amendment for soils, does naturally contain some fluoride, so if you're going to use it in a Rhapis mix, you probably should wash it first. I haven't repotted mine, and don't expect to soon, so I don't know how much of a pain that's likely to be.

Fluoride toxicity manifests as brown leaf tips: fluoridated water, unwashed perlite, and high-phosphorus fertilizers (because the more common sources of phosphorus used in fertilizers also contain enough fluoride to be a problem) are all potential fluoride sources. Tips will also burn if the plant gets very dry or hot, or if salts in general (not just fluoride) build up in the soil. Flushing with rainwater, reverse osmosis water, or distilled water should help.

Another common issue with lady palms is chlorosis, a yellowing of the foliage between veins, especially on the newest leaves. Chlorotic plants are reacting to lack of iron, but there are many possible reasons why iron might not be available: if soil has broken down and compacted around the roots, the resulting lack of air can cause chlorosis, or root rot which then leads to chlorosis. Overwatering may also reduce available air enough to lead to chlorosis, especially in large plants. Another possible cause is high soil pH. All of these conditions could, in theory, be dealt with by replacing the soil (topdressing wouldn't be enough: it'd have to be a complete soil change), but adding chelated iron to the soil might also correct the problem, depending on what it is, and might be easier than a complete soil change.

Plants will also turn yellow if grown in full sun, though this isn't the same thing as chlorosis, and iron won't help.

Propagation of Rhapis indoors is pretty much through divisions only: the stalks can be separated from one another, preferably in the spring, by cutting through the rhizomes and then potting up the divisions individually. Plants are slow to produce new suckers, though,8 so this isn't practical for large-scale production. For that, you have to grow them from seed, which I couldn't find a lot of information about. The growers' guide says germination of fresh seed occurs in 50-60 days but doesn't have much to say beyond that. Propagation by sucker is considerably faster than propagation from seed: seedlings are said to be mind-bendingly slow-growing.

Closer picture of the rhizomes and suckers.

In good hands, a single Rhapis excelsa plant can outlive multiple generations of owners, and there's theoretically no reason why a given lineage of plant couldn't be immortal. So they're potentially quite a bargain, whether at $30 or $25,000. And -- they're authentically Asian (unlike a certain so-called "bamboo" I could mention), and make equal sense with Chinese- or Japanese-themed decor. What's not to love?


Photo credit: all my photos, except for the Kannonyama pictures (thanks again, Sean).

1 I'm at least not the only person who does. Last summer, a customer I was talking to about some plant or another started referring to it as "he." Then she caught herself and acted kind of embarrassed, and made some comment like, Geez, look at me, gendering the plants. I assured her that I do it too. The conversation continued, but left me wondering about all the gendered words in languages like French and Russian -- is this how that kind of thing gets started? Is gendering objects something people do naturally, or is it only particularly odd people?
2 Actually, individual plants are one or the other, either male or female but not both in the same plant. I am not aware of any way to tell which you have unless and until your plant flowers.
3 It looks like kannonchiku refers exclusively to dwarfed forms of Rhapis excelsa, not the species in general. Dwarfed varieties generally stay under six feet (two meters) tall. The non-dwarfed species plant can get in the neighborhood of 14 feet (4.27 meters). My assumption is that if you're buying an otherwise unmarked plant, you're probably getting a non-dwarfed variety.
4 The Bodhisattva of compassion, specifically. I have only a very rudimentary understanding of what is meant by "Bodhisattva," so don't look at me to explain it. Try Wikipedia. There's a story told in the Wikipedia entry about Kannon which is too good (or which I relate to too well, or something) to leave out of this post, even though it's not at all related to Rhapis excelsa. I'm paraphrasing because it's more fun that way:

Kannon vowed never to rest until all sentient beings were freed from samsara (the cycle of reincarnation and death by which beings pass from living to dead and back). She tried really hard, but it didn't work out; she couldn't save everybody. Eventually the stress of just trying to comprehend the needs of so many people made her head split into eleven pieces, after which Amitabha Buddha gave her eleven heads. So she could hear the suffering better, I guess. (Gee, thanks, Amitabha.) Then when she heard and understood all the cries around her, she tried to reach out to everyone who needed aid, but her arms then shattered to pieces. I think we've all had days like this. Amitabha to the rescue again: he gave her a thousand arms, then, to use to help people with. Whether Amitabha ever got up off his ass and listened to some suffering too, I don't know. One can hope. Continuing:

Should maybe also note, in keeping with the chosen "person" in the title, that Kannon is usually, but not always depicted as a woman. Kannon's known as Guan Yin to the Chinese, but it's the same "person," just with a different name. The Japanese and Chinese apparently steal stuff from one another all the time.
5 I kid. I would totally sit around ranking plants all day if I didn't have to go to work.
6 Also, despite its status as a "lady" palm, I've seen the claim made that only male plants are known of Rhapis humilis, in which case we should call it the "dude-looks-like-a-lady" palm. I suspect this is not true, and the growers' guide says "R. humilis rarely produces seed," so however rare it is, it clearly happens sometimes. Lynn P. Griffith, Jr. would tell me if there weren't any female plants. So I'm not sure what's up with this, but I'm learning to be a lot more skeptical about things I read at Dave's Garden.
7 Not that you should ask it to do this if you value your plant: it's stressful even if not fatal. Accidents will happen, though, so let me add that prolonged sub-freezing temperatures may kill a plant back to the ground, but they're said to be quick to recover and resprout as long as they weren't really cold, for a really long time. These are tough plants.
8 Or maybe not: this site says two or three suckers per year, which doesn't strike me as being that bad. Still, I suppose it'd be slow for large-scale commercial production. Why aren't the tissue culture people all over this like song-and-dance reality shows during a writers' strike?


Anonymous said...

Another interesing blog entry. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Just found your blog through blotanical. I love palms great post on the Lady palm. I just bought 60 lady dwarf seeds from a variegated 1. I will be starting them on my blog as soon as they show up. Keep up the good work!


Anonymous said...

This is really interesting! And I like your use of footnotes. Please never give in to the advice to "pander to the voting public" and start writing short posts with pictures of garden gnomes or cats.

Keep up the long, thoughtful and clever posts--the kind that are worth reading.

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

Great post, once again!

Anonymous said...

Glad to see this post. The last time I was at a nursery I almost bought one of these palms--I didn't know anything about the care of them though, so I reluctantly passed it up. Next time I'll splurge without worry! :)

PS Hopefully you're taking care of yourself in the greenhouse during this spring season. Be careful with all that lifting, because nothing is worth a life-changing back injury (and I should know!).

Anonymous said...

Wow, you really do your research.
I found this quite interesting, too.
You express yourself well.

OK, the bad news...I consider myself above the 'novice' classification of a plantsperson.
I have, well...a lot of plants and do a pretty fair job of tending to them.

So, when I saw a Rhapis at a somewhat affordable price, (it was still more than I should have paid, but a good deal for it's relatively large size) I snatched it up, too.

I paid careful attention to the type of soil I planted it in (mixed it myself) and watched the watering.

The palm died.

I was gravely disappointed with this 'easy' palm.
I won't buy one again.

Hoping, however, that yours thrives for you!

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, anonymous, if it makes you feel any better, I've failed a number of times with the likewise "easy" parlor palm, Chamaedorea elegans. Everybody seems to have a couple "easy" plants that don't work for them.

Mss: Thanks for the compliments. I know which post you're referring to, w/r/t the "pandering" comment, and the bit that bothered me the most about that post was the person who said that she stopped reading a page as soon as she ran into naughty words, foreign language, or naked advocacy of any kind.

I don't think she's going to find much to like here, since -- while PATSP is generally clean on the foreign language bit (except for all the Greek and Latin botanical names, or the Hawaiian in the post on Ardisia elliptica, or the Japanese in this entry, or the Spanish in Chlorophytum comosum, or . . . well crap. I guess I do that too. Never mind.), I won't apologize for using the occasional verboten (oh no! German!) word, and occasional naked advocacy sneaks in as well. There may be some cat pictures in the future (I've been saving up some LOLcats for strategic deployment in a particular post, which post is turning out to be really, really frustrating to put together.), but you needn't worry about this blog going all cuddly and treacly.

That said, it's not like I go out of my way to offend people either. Or I don't think I do. Plants are nice; I like talking about them. Whether or not you want emergency contraception available to rape victims, are personally comfortable with Obama possibly becoming the next U.S. President, want to see abortion outlawed, or think the husband and I should be stoned in public by the leaders of our village -- well, it all matters, it's certainly important (especially that last one), but this is part of what I tend plants to avoid thinking about, and I don't especially want to deal with it here. So I try to keep off the soapbox most of the time.

Or at least I only use the little paper boxes that individual bars of soap come in.

Anonymous said...

I like rhapis a lot - they are definitely good to use in places that get too cold for most other houseplants. Brown tips do become an issue unless soil and watering is perfect. Definitely much more mite resistant than other palms. A nice plant, but not as "palm" looking as, say, a kentia palm.

Anonymous said...

great post. i saw that you mentioned turface earlier and i had planned on using that to amend my container garden but i can't seem to find any in the iowa city area. any tips on finding inexpensive (student budget) turface or the equivalent in iowa city?

mr_subjunctive said...

At home, I use an "aquatic plant soil" by Schultz, which is basically just kiln-fired clay particles. The store where I work used to carry it, though the last time I went looking for some in the backstock I couldn't find any. Some of the big-box competition carry it, though. It's expensive no matter where you buy it (be prepared for something in the $7-11 range), at least considering what it is, but a little goes a long way, too: I expect my bag should last me for the better part of a year.

As far as where to look specifically, well, I hesitate to recommend a particular store, but most garden centers around Iowa City should have something along these lines now. I'm pretty happy with the Schultz product, so I would recommend calling around and asking for it by name. There are other "soils" for aquatic plants out there, but the other one I've seen at work is much coarser, and I'm not sure what it's made of, so I'm not sure it would work as well.

Unknown said...

Eastern Nurseries in Australia has an amazing collection, check it out

Jason said...

Just discovered your delightful blog.
Have you reviewed Howea forsteriana yet? I did a quick search but didn't find it. Maybe palms aren't your thing? Chamaedorea metallica is an amazingly tolerant, long-lived houseplant.

mr_subjunctive said...


I have done a profile for Chamaedorea metallica, and I agree with your assessment. Unfortunately, customers hate them.

I haven't profiled Howea forsteriana, and it's somewhat unlikely that I ever will: I'm not sure I've ever seen them for sale around here. From reading availability lists from our supplier in Florida, I know they're really expensive wholesale, so even if I did see one, I probably wouldn't be able to afford it.

Jackie said...

I am new to your web site and was happy to find you knew your stuff... I live in Michigan, but think palms are great. My attraction to palms started seven years ago with my first trip to the Gulf of Mexico. My first was a Chinese Windmill Palm and then a few Sagos, (which I know aren't really palms). And now I have a great Pygmy Date palm and a Rhapis Palm.
But I purchased the Rhapis at a second hand/resale store for $1.50 about a year ago. I didn't know what it was, just some palm-looking plant that needed a home (It was growing in a coffee can). So lately I got to thinking that I should try to find out what this little plant was. It looked alittle like a very young windmill palm. But I really didn't think it was, so I went on line and started looking at pictures until I found it. Now you say it's worth it's weight in cash. Huh, who knew?
I really enjoyed your insight on this wonderful little plant and hope I can keep it happy. It had dry brown tips and some dry edges when I got it and still has problems with that. There was three shoots, but by the time I found it, one of those were dead. I hope to be able to take better care of it now with your help. Thanks so much!

Bret said...

I think it's funny that you mentioned genders and Kannon in the same post. Guan Yin (and therefore Kannon) is based off Avalokitesvara who is male. Because of this Guan Yin (so I assume Kannon also) is sometimes depicted as a female with male characteristics (a common one is with a male chest). So there you go, you have a gender bending plant associated with a gender bending bodhisattva.

aihua said...

I highly enjoyed your blog. I've learnt so much, and your blog were the only one that actually pinpointed the problem with my Xanadu - Erwinia. Thanks!

Just want to point out that in Malaysia (maybe Singapore too?), the plant we call Guan Yin (Kannon) Bamboo is actually the Dracaena braunii. Google "Guanyin bamboo" also yields a search result of mainly Dracenas. Just find that interesting.