Rhapis excelsa

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Rhapis (RAH-pis)
excelsa (ex-SELL-sah)
Rhapis excelsa, the commonly cultivated lady palm, growing in the wild in Vietnam. Photo by Dr. Andrew J. Henderson.
Scientific Classification
Genus: Rhapis (RAH-pis)
excelsa (ex-SELL-sah)
None set.
Native Continent
Habit: Clustering
Leaf type: Costapalmate
Height: 12 ft.
Trunk diameter: 1 in.
Survivability index
Common names
Lady palm, lady finger palm, broadleaf lady palm, bamboo palm

Habitat and Distribution

Rhapis excelsa endemic; China South-Central, China Southeast, Hainan, Japan, Nansei-shoto, and Vietnam.
Singapore. Photo by Kwan.
China, Yunnan; South Central China, Hainan; South East China, Guangdon, Fujian, Hongkong; Japan. Habitat. woods, alt. 3080 ft (939 m); river valley; wooded mountain side.


The delicate lady palm forms dense clumps of bamboo-like stalks topped with very dark green, broad, fan-shaped leaves. Performing well in northside foundation plantings or other shady locations, slow-growing lady palm is also ideal for containers. They lend a rich tropical look to the landscape. Lady palms can be effective accents in a shrub border or near an entryway. Plant on three- to four-foot centers to create a mass effect. Locate them in a low-growing ground cover such as mondo grass or lily turf for a dramatic effect. This palm looks wonderful when it is lighted from below, or silhouetted at night. (EDIS) Editing by edric.

R. excelsa grows up to 4 m in height and 30 mm in diameter in multi-stemmed clumps with glossy, palmate leaves divided into broad, ribbed segments. Leaf segments are single or few in young plants and increase to a dozen or more in mature plants; the segments are divided to the petiole, or nearly so. Leaf-ends are saw-toothed unlike most other palms, occurring on slender petioles ranging from 20 to 60 cm in length. New foliage emerges from a fibrous sheath which remains attached to the base. As the plants age, the sheaths fall, revealing the bamboo-like trunks. This usually dioecious palm species produces a small inflorescence at the top of the plant with spirally-arranged, fleshy flowers containing three petals fused at the base. Ripe fruit are fleshy and white, though R. excelsa more readily propagates via underground rhizome offshoots.

Stems to 2.5 m tall, with sheaths 15–21 mm in diam., without sheaths 8–12 mm. Leaf sheath loosely sheathing the stem, usually with outer and inner fibers of similar thickness, producing a squared mesh, some young sheaths with flatter, coarser outer fibers and tomentum, ligule not remaining intact at maturity; petiole to 4 mm wide, margin often smooth, rarely minutely scabrid, often bearing brown papillae; blade with V-shaped or semi-circular outline, variable in size, often with a conspicuous palman, segments (1)4–13, folds 11–25, to 375 mm long, broad, relatively straightsided, narrowing slightly at base and apex, apices sometimes cucculate, usually truncate, with regular dentate secondary splitting, primary splits to within 2.5–61 mm of the blade base, sometimes with brown papillae at the base and along the ribs, sometimes scabrid along the adaxial ribs, thick in texture, adaxial and abaxial surfaces similar in colour, often with a yellow tinge, adaxial occasionally darker, transverse veinlets conspicuous. Inflorescence, male and female similar in general appearance, branching to 2 or 3 orders; prophyll tubular, overlapping the base of the first rachis bract, relatively thin in texture, reddish brown, sometimes darker at the base, inner surface smooth, outer surface with tomentum often only at the distal end; rachis bracts 2 (–3), sometimes with a distal incomplete rachis bract, similar in appearance to prophyll; rachis overall length to 260 mm, 4–8 mm in diam., rachillae 7.5–110 mm long, 0.8–1.9 mm in diam., usually glabrous, pale brown, sometimes with small patches of caducous tomentum. Flowers densely packed on the rachillae. Male flowers globose when young, elongating when mature to 5.2 × 3.8 mm; calyx to 2.8 mm, lobes to 2 mm, usually with a regular margin; corolla sometimes narrowed into a short receptacular-stalk to 1 mm; filaments, shorter row to 2.2 mm, longer row to 2.5 mm, broad, to 0.4 mm, with adaxial keel, triangular in cross section; pistillode sometimes present. Female flowers to 3.6 × 3.2 mm; calyx to 2.3 mm; corolla with a receptacular-stalk to 1.1 mm; staminodes present. Fruit sometimes with 3 carpels developing, often only one reaching maturity, to 8–10 × 8 mm, borne on a short receptacular-stalk to 2 mm, epicarp shiny translucent, minutely papillose, with conspicuous black lenticels. (L. Hastings. 2003)/Palmweb.


Cold Hardiness Zone 8b.

Light: Grow in shade to part shade for best leaf color. Plants grown in direct sun tend to fade to yellow green and tip burn in hot weather if not provided adequate moisture.

Moisture: Adaptable to most soils. Maintain adequate moisture for best appearance. This palm can survive periods of drought once established.

It can survive temperatures down to mid twenties without damage. Lower temperatures will kill stems but plant may recover. Propagation: Propagate from seed or division of clumps. (floridata.com)

One of the reasons for this palm's popularity is its ease of culture. Rhapis excelsa is very adaptable to soil types although neutral to slightly acid soils with good drainage and organic matter is recommended for best results. This palm as is the case with most Rhapis species is an understorey plant so for best results a partially shaded spot under trees or a pergola is ideal. Rhapis excelsa can be grown in full sun as long as soils are good and adequate water is available. Leaves however will lose their deep green colouring, will become yellowish green and on the hotter days will probably burn.

Temperatures as low as -5° C are tolerated by R. excelsa as it is quite cold hardy, particularly when grown under shelter, and it also grows in climates where it may be exposed to prolonged periods of cold weather. Very hot weather, particularly when the air is very dry, may cause damage which can be prevented by adequate watering, mulching and growing under other plants or pergolas and occasional hosing of foliage with a fine spray or mist can also help to maintain a higher relative humidity.

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Comments and Curiosities

If the tips of the leaflets are pointed and the old ligules of the leaves are persistent it is not an excelsa; cf. Hastings 2003 6 Henderson 2009.

excelsa (1) 2-15 leaflets

(2) blades not split to the base

(3) jagged apices of leaflets

(4) petiole to 4 mm wide

(5) ligules not persistent

(6) stem with sheaths 1.5-2.1 cm diameter (to 2.5 m tall)

(7) stem without sheaths 0.8-1.2 cm diameter

Etymology: The genus name is from the Greek word 'rhapis' meaning "needle or rod". The specific epithet is from the Latin word meaning "tall" for its tall stems.

External Links


Phonetic spelling of Latin names by edric.

Special thanks to Geoff Stein, (Palmbob) for his hundreds of photos.

Special thanks to Palmweb.org, Dr. John Dransfield, Dr. Bill Baker & team, for their volumes of information and photos.

Glossary of Palm Terms; Based on the glossary in Dransfield, J., N.W. Uhl, C.B. Asmussen-Lange, W.J. Baker, M.M. Harley & C.E. Lewis. 2008. Genera Palmarum - Evolution and Classification of the Palms. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. All images copyright of the artists and photographers (see images for credits).

Hastings, L.2003. A Revision of Rhapis, the Lady Palms. Palms 47(2) 62-78.

Many Special Thanks to Ed Vaile for his long hours of tireless editing and numerous contributions.

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