Etymology: Genus name from the Greek word meaning 'rod', referring perhaps to the thin stems of these palms.
The Raphis genus
Rhapis is a small genus of palms containing perhaps 12 species--all from Asia, including South China, Thailand and several islands. These are mostly undergrowth palms, not known for their love of full sun, and are palms that tend to grow in high rainfall and moderately tropical situations. Despite their tropical origins, most of the commonly grown species are amazingly tolerant plants, surviving frosts, droughts, high winds and even some direct, hot sunshine. However where they excel the most impressively is in low light, indoor situations where they seem to be the perfect houseplant palm.
All Rhapis are fan (palmate) palms with typically deeply divided leaves. The leaves are so deeply divided that the leaflets look like separate entities and create the illusion of fingers off a hand. This appearance of slender fingers is where the common name Lady Palm comes from. The reed-like stems of these palms are where the other common name, Bamboo Palm, comes from. This is an unfortunate common name, however as there are literally dozens of other palms also referred to as Bamboo Palms which continues to cause endless confusion among inexperienced palm and houseplant collectors (nearly all the other species called bamboo palms also tend to make decent house plants just adding to the confusion.) Rhapis palms are the only palmate bamboo palms; all the others are pinnate species, and nearly all are Chamaedoreas. Rhapis palms are also sometimes refered to as dwarf fan palms, which is also the common name for a similar looking species, Guiahia argyrata.
Rhapis is a clustering species, spreading via underground runners (rhizomes) several inches to feet in all directions, but is slow to do so. Some species are more active spreaders than others. Some consider this an invasive group of palms, but in most gardens their spread is slow enough to easily control. In pots this spreading nature is obviously hindered, but eventually these potted plants become very root bound eventually necessitating their dividing, or at least moving up to a larger pot size. The dwarf cultivars are so slow growing that this eventuality takes decades to realize. The stems of these palms are either covered with a dense mesh of fibers or are partially naked, and are very stiff and straight, but only fractions of an inch in diameter.
This is a dioecious genus of palms, meaning there are male plants and female plants, with no individuals producing both sexes of flowers. Some species can only be found in one sex. Rhapis humilis are all male and Rhapis laoensis are all female. These two species obviously have to be divided to be propagated, though division is the most common method of making more plants in all these species of Rhapis. The rest of the species can also be reproduced via seed production and germination as well. Seed germination is how the ‘sports' (variegated and unusual leaf forms) are created: amongst thousands of germinated seedlings a few oddballs develop and these are then grown up, divided and propagated for the nursery trade.
In general Rhapis are very easy to grow plants, requiring little fertilization, just water, soil (acidic is preferred), bright light (though many will tolerate very low light levels for prolonged periods of time), warmth (again, many will briefly tolerate temps well below freezing) and moisture. Most of the Rhapis species are also quite resistant to insect predation, another reason some make such exceptional house palms (no spider mites!). (Geoff Stein)
The Lady Palms are among the most familiar and widely grown of all ornamental palms, yet, surprisingly, the taxonomy of the genus has often been confused and several species remain poorly known. In this account of Rhapis, eight species are recognized, and the complex nomenclatural history of the genus is discussed. Read On...