Parlor palms (Chamaedorea elegans) and I don't get along at all. Never have. I have no idea why this is, but I've accepted it and moved on with my life, as all the horticultural self-help books1 say to do.
So I was a little intimidated by Chamaedorea metallica when we first met at Pierson's, in Cedar Rapids, a year and a half ago. It's not always the case that if one species in a genus gives you trouble, the others will too, but it's true often enough that I worried. I bought it anyway, though, because 1) I'd never seen it before and they looked awfully cool, 2) It was AVDPVD50POS time at Piersons,2 so it wasn't outrageously expensive, 3) I'd come all that way and really wanted to buy something.
So it came home with me anyway, and, surprisingly, it's not like all the other Chamaedoreas, and we've gotten along quite well, once we got past a few early misunderstandings.
Having had a good experience with them personally, I wanted to try them professionally, so when I had the opportunity to get some in at work, I did. And I don't think we've sold a single one. (Okay, maybe one. I think WCW might have gotten one.) Why not? I'm not sure. They're not outrageously priced: compared to the other tropicals we have, in fact, they're downright cheap ($10 for one plant in a six-inch pot, $40 for four plants in an eight-inch pot). This was deliberate on my part, to try to encourage people to buy them, but it hasn't helped.3 They're in no worse shape now than they were when they first arrived (probably December, maybe October). They're prominently displayed: maybe ten or fifteen feet inside the greenhouse door, in a large group at the base of a big pyramidal stand. But nobody so much as stops and looks at them.
So perhaps it's just that they're not bright, flashy colors. Maybe they're a little too rough around the edges. Maybe people are scared away by the sight of bare stems. Really couldn't say. But it offends me, slightly, in that way I get offended on behalf of a plant (see also Tradescantia pallida), because they're really quite nice once you get to know them. They certainly don't deserve to be shunned like Klingon-costume-wearing, slide-rule-carrying dorks.4
Chamaedorea metallica is a Mexican native, primarily found as a rainforest understory plant. It has gray-green leaves with a metallic sheen to them, which is strongest on plants grown in darker conditions: with good light, plants tend to look more green and less metallic gray. This metallic coloration is, to one degree or another, a feature of a lot of Chamaedoreas. (C. cataractum being another example, though the cataractums I've seen were more of a metallic green-blue, not a metallic green-gray).
The leaves are ordinarily "fishtail" shaped (all one piece, but with a large symmetrical notch taken out where the leaf tip would be). A few of our plants at work have developed a couple leaves which look more like the traditional palm, with multiple leaflets arranged along a stem. This may be normal, but I haven't seen it anywhere other than on our plants, and only with a couple of them. Possibly they got overfed this spring, or they're reacting to the frequently extreme heat somehow.
C. metallica is one of the easier plants I know, too. Not that telling customers this results in any sales either: a few times I've gotten back an oh, interesting, and that's about as far as it goes and eventually they decide to buy a Dracaena marginata instead and I: yawn myself into unconsciousness.5
Light: Chamaedorea metallica will adapt to most light conditions, though I wouldn't try full sun. My own plant is sort of off to the side of a south window, where it gets mostly bright indirect light, with a little bit of direct sun in the late afternoon, and it seems to like it there so I haven't messed with it. Still, though, the ones at work got thrown under a table when we started getting annuals in this spring and had to make more room: they actually loved it there, did beautifully, even though they couldn't have been getting much light at all. Started blooming and the whole bit. So I don't think it's possible to get this wrong.
Watering: Chamaedoreas in general don't have very impressive root systems for the size of the plant, so it's easy to drown them. Use a soil that drains quickly, and then water often. If you can't do that for one reason or another, aim for watering when the soil is about halfway dry. The plants at work stay pretty wet all the time, but then it's also hot and humid in there, which means they're growing a lot faster and need more water.6
Temperature: According to at least one site, mature, established plants outdoors can handle temperatures down to 28ºF (-2ºC) for four days without any leaf damage. The growers' guide says that Chamaedoreas in general (i.e., not metallica specifically) do best between 75 and 90ºF (24-32ºC), and tend to be injured below about 45ºF (7ºC). Probably better to be safe than sorry, especially for a containerized plant, but if you forget to bring yours in on a cold night, you won't necessarily lose it.7
Humidity: They're said not to do well in dry air, and many of the sites that address keeping them indoors recommend making an effort to add some humidity. I can't really tell how serious this is.
Pests: I haven't seen anybody say these are much bothered by any pests, and a couple sources specifically said that spider mites weren't a big deal for these (which is significant, since other Chamaedorea species are very bothered by mites). Mealybugs, however, were mentioned once or twice. My own plant has been pest-free since I got it, and the plants at work seem to be too.
Grooming: Pretty minor. Flowers (see propagation) fall off after a week or two. They're not a big deal to pick up, but you will have to pick them up. Old flower stalks hang on for a long time and are somewhat difficult to remove. Leaves that have died need to be pulled off, though that's not a frequent occurrence. Chamaedoreas do not do well in soil that has begun to break down, as container soil inevitably will, so checking to see whether the plant needs repotting every once in a while also counts as necessary routine maintenance.
Feeding: Light to none. Not only will tips burn if the plant is exposed to excessive fluoride or boron, they'll burn a little bit if there are high soluble salts of any kind. Plants are naturally found in fairly alkaline, limestone-heavy soils, so adding conservative amounts of calcium very occasionally will help with the fluoride and boron problems.8 They don't have very high requirements for nutrients to begin with, says the growers' guide, so go easy.
Propagation: Plants will produce bright orange (if not especially attractive) flowers, even indoors. Usually this happens in spring and summer, and it may happen multiple times over a period of months. As far as I could determine, C. metallica is not self-fertile, and (as with some other species we've covered) individual plants are either male or female. If you're lucky enough to have one get pollinated, blue-purple berries will form (they look very much like the berries on C. seifrizii). I was unable to find any very clear instructions about what to do with these berries once you've got them, but the growers' guide says seeds should be shallowly buried, kept evenly moist, and sprout quickest with bottom heat (aiming for a temperature of about 90ºF / 32ºC). Without bottom heat, they may take as long as a year to germinate. Seedlings should be kept cooler (around 80ºF / 27ºC) and out of direct sun until about its third leaf.
It's also sometimes possible to divide: some species of Chamaedorea do offset, but I have yet to see metallica do so. It may or may not happen.
Anyway. C. metallica is actually endangered in its native habitat. I couldn't find any specifics about why (disease, development, collection, etc.), but this is also the case for parlor palms (C. elegans), which are from the same area, so habitat destruction is surely a strong contender.
A common thread in the various websites I found is that a lot of them refer to this plant as small. I suppose this is a matter of perspective, but they can get five or six feet, at least, which doesn't seem all that tiny to me. There are some pictures of this at davesgarden.com. They won't hang on to their foliage all the way up the stem no matter what you do, it looks like, so don't beat yourself up about that.
Chamaedorea metallica could use some glamour, some pizazz. It's true. They're a little bookish, a little odd, and we're not used to seeing them everywhere yet, either. And the naked stem thing is a little embarrassing. And then there are those funny twenty-sided dice they carry around with them all over the place. I mean, they've got problems. But it's not like they won't meet you more than halfway, as far as care goes, and there are no other plants I can think of with that color and shape -- which is an interesting color and shape, okay? They just need a makeover or something. Queer Eye for the Straight Plant. Something to make them a little bit sexy, a little bit dangerous. Little leather jackets or something. Slimming vertical stripes. Throw pillows. I don't know.
At least I don't have to worry about keeping them alive until I figure out how to show them off to their best advantage. However long that might take.
Photo credits: all mine.
1 A genre which includes such classics as I Overwater . . . and That's O.K., How to Win Plants and Influence Other Plants, and Learning to Love the Plants That Love You Back: a Gardener's Guide to Coping With Codependency.
2 Annual Variable-Duration Post-Valentine's-Day 50%-Off Sale; see post here about my last AVDPVD50POS.
3 (Stupid, unappreciative customers.)
4 I never had a slide rule, and I never wore a Klingon costume, but I was still a dork. An exceptionally suave, brilliant, and jaw-droppingly handsome dork, obviously, but a dork nevertheless. In about 1992, I tried to write a Star Trek novel. (This was in the days before internet fanfic communities, remember.) It didn't go very well, and wouldn't have sold if I'd been able to finish it: I found the regular "Star Trek: Next Generation" characters too painfully dull to write for, so the first part of it was supposed to take place on some other ship, and then eventually I was going to bring in the Enterprise people and they'd have to put together what had happened on this other ship. Like a mystery. I got really tired of the regulars being all noble and pure all the time, so for my own crew, I piled on the imperfections with a shovel: the captain was, effectively, a clinically depressed alcoholic, the doctor was killing people (including the ship's counselor) over some quasi-racist bullshit, and in the middle of this they find a planet with intelligent life on it, which they weren't expecting (and obviously neither was Starfleet Command, or else they wouldn't have sent these people), and who they then immediately pissed off by being too inept or self-absorbed or distracted by all the corpses piling up to recognize that it was intelligent life. The last time I re-read it, which was forever ago, I kind of got the impression that these were not exactly the top fiftieth percentile in their Starfleet Academy class, if you get what I mean (and I think you do). Other characters were having fairly dire personal problems too, besides the alcoholism and serial killing; I don't remember it all. It's been a long time ago. So I think I'm allowed the occasional joke at the expense of Trekkies: I was invested at one time, just never in a way that involved costumes. Not that there's anything wrong with costumes.
5 Not that there's anything wrong with Dracaena marginata really. I just don't really like the look all that well, and it frustrates me that they remain popular even though there are much more interesting plants out there, like with Spathiphyllum spp.
6 Of course, it's a slowish kind of faster.
Also they may not be as wet as they look: we don't usually stand there and soak the hell out of every single plant, because if we did that, watering would take twelve hours a day. So sometimes only a little water lands in the pot. Watering in the greenhouse is a very different thing from watering at home; I keep meaning to do a post about this.
7 (The important thing, like always, is not to panic. Plants have crappy long-term memory; you just have to immediately start treating them properly again, not overdo it, and see whether they come back.)
8 The reason calcium helps with fluoride toxicity is because calcium fluoride is not very soluble in water. Adding calcium doesn't make the fluoride go away, but it locks it up in the soil so that it can't do any more damage. I think flushing with large amounts of water is probably the better way to deal with any kind of high-salt toxicity, but if this doesn't work for you for some reason, there's another option for you to try.