| Rhapis (RAH-pis)
Rhapis excelsa, the commonly cultivated lady palm, growing in the wild in Vietnam. Photo by Dr. Andrew J. Henderson.
Habitat and DistributionRhapis excelsa endemic; China South-Central, China Southeast, Hainan, Japan, Nansei-shoto, and Vietnam.
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.
Two specimens [Malay Peninsula, plant house in a tub s.n. 1929 (K) and Kew, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew s.n. 1856 (K)] have flowers that appear female but have well developed anthers and may be hermaphrodite. Rhapis excelsa differs from R. humilis in having outer leaf sheaths loosely sheathing the stem, ligule not remaining intact at maturity producing many detached fibers; blade varying from both semi-circular to V-shaped in outline, thicker in texture and a paler, more yellow-green in colour in dried specimens, often with fewer segments, segments straighter sided with truncate apices and more regular dentate secondary splitting, palman less conspicuous. While individual differences in the vegetative characters are difficult to pinpoint between R. excelsa and R. humilis, when all the vegetative characters are taken as a whole the leaves can be distinguished easily. Inflorescence characters are more noticeably different. Rhapis excelsa differs in having glabrous rachis and rachillae at maturity, tomentum often present on the bracts and stamens with broader keeled filaments; not more than three rachis bracts were recorded, while four were recorded for R. humilis. Rhapis excelsa may be of Chinese and Japanese origin, as suggested by the herbarium specimens, or from China introduced to Japan and from there to the West. The long history of cultivation probably accounts for the selection of many variants within the species including dwarfism and variegation. The nomenclatural and taxonomic history of R. excelsa is inextricably linked with that of R. humilis and so these aspects of the two species are discussed together here. The type specimen of R. excelsa is Thunberg’s Chamaerops excelsa which comprises two sheets in the Thunberg collection at Upsala, Sweden – collection number 24385, consisting of a leaf and partial inflorescence, and 24386, comprising a single leaf. Good close-up photographs enabled the author critically to examine the type. The type is a mixed collection and thus lectotypification is necessary. Sheet 24385 matches the widely accepted application of the name R. humilis, while 24386 matches R. excelsa. In order to maintain nomenclatural stability for these two very widely grown horticultural plants, I have selected Thunberg sheet number 24386 (U) to represent the type of R. excelsa. This mixed collection type specimen has bedevilled the taxonomy from the very beginning (Beccari referred to “Un grande imbroglio di nomenclatura”) and has been responsible for much of the past confusion between these two species. A short description is given for the name Rhapis flabelliformis L’Hérit ex Aiton in Aiton, Hort. Kew 1(3): 473. 1789. It includes the name Chamaerops excelsa Thunb. in synonymy, which was published five years earlier and following modern nomenclatural rules the correct name for the taxon is therefore Rhapis excelsa (Thunb.) A. Henry, resulting in the name Rhapis flabelliformis being superfluous and the type specimen for it being Thunberg sheet number 24386 (U), the type of Rhapis excelsa. For full details of Rhapis flabelliformis L’Hérit ex Aiton see Text Box. The species epithet for Rhapis Kwamwonzick Siebold has several different spellings in the literature but Kwamwonzick is the only one that is validly published. It does not appear to be represented by a type specimen; however, the description and illustration match R. excelsa. (L. Hastings. 2003)/Palmweb.
A short description is given for the name Rhapis flabelliformis L’Hérit ex Aiton in Aiton, Hort. Kew 1(3): 473. 1789. It includes a reference to a plate of the species: L’ Hérit., Stirp. nov., 2. Plate 100, which has not been located, despite thorough searching through the copies of L’ Héritier’s Stirpes Novae in the libraries at Kew (K), the Linnean Society (LINN), the Natural History Museum, London (BM) and the New York Botanic Garden (NY). In each of the copies in these libraries plate 100 is Solanum xanthocarpum, and R. flabelliformis does not appear in the book. In the BM copy of Hortus Kewensis “[ined]” has been added next to the R. flabelliformis reference, and it could be that the author in Aiton was basing his statement on unpublished material that was later not included (Judith Magee, librarian, pers. comm.). L’ Héritier did not finish Stirpes Novae due to misfortune during the French Revolution; he had planned to issue two volumes (Bucheim 1966). The author of Rhapis flabelliformis in Aiton (1789) may have seen the unpublished plate which subsequently may have been separated from the other loose plates (later some of these were collected together) during the distribution of L’ Héritier’s estate after he was murdered in 1800 (Stafleu & Cowan 1981). Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis (1789) was written by Solander and continued by Dryander, both scholar librarians employed by Joseph Banks (Stearn W. T. pers. comm.; Carter 1988). The Solander boxes at BM contain the detailed descriptions of all the species described in Aiton (W. T. Stearn pers. comm.). Solander’s description of R. flabelliformis (Pages 317–321, Solander boxes BM) was located and when translated from the Latin indicates that the specimen on which R. flabelliformis was based was collected from a plant growing in Dr. James Gordon’s garden at Mile End, London, in 1776. This specimen is at the Natural History Museum (BM) and has been identified by the author as R. excelsa. (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.
As an indoor plant Rhapis excelsa has no palm rival. (Not even Howea forsteriana. ) Its ability to handle low light intensities, low humidity, varying temperatures plus its suitability to pot culture, small to moderate size and slow growth rate make this palm ideal for indoor culture. Rhapis excelsa has very few pests or diseases to trouble it. The only major pests are scale and mealybug. Scale can be easily controlled by physical removal, wash off with high pressure jet of water, or scrape off with cotton wool buds, or by chemical control with White Oil, or a systemic insecticide such as Rogor or Metasystox. Mealybug can be removed physically but it usually requires chemical control. For total control use a systemic insecticide and apply as a soil drench as mealybug often invades the roots of a plant, However, pest disease problems are few. The only problems I have had being root rot caused by fungus attack because of poor cultural practices and brown or black fungal spot on the leaves, usually symptomatic of poor nutritional status.
Root rots can be avoided through proper cultural practices such as choosing healthy plants in the first place and watering only when necessary. Provide good drainage so that water does not build up and stay around the roots of your plants. This means plant in raised beds when planting into poorly drained ground, or opening up the soil by adding organic matter or coarse sand or, in pots or tubs use potting mixes that conform to the Australian Standard. Poor drainage is the single most common reason for root rot in potted plants and, with stale water continually surrounding roots a low oxygen environment develops which is ideal for root rot to take hold.
But if, despite great care, root rot symptoms do develop, such as wilting, excessive browning of leaf tips and loss of vigour, firstly remove the plant from the soil it is in, wash roots bare of soil, inspect roots for fungus problems, remove black roots or reddish brown roots and replant into a raised bed of well drained soils. In the case of tub or potted plants do the same but plant into a clean well drained potting mix and, finally, drench the soil with a systemic fungicide such as Fongarid or Terazol or similar. Brown or black fungal spot is usually caused by poor cultural practices. To prevent the disease, buy only good quality plants and don't crowd plants too much so as to allow unimpeded air flow to reduce conditions ideal for the fungus. If leaf spot does occur remove and burn the affected leaves. Thin out plants or space potted plants to improve ventilation and finally spray all affected plants with a preventative fungicide such as Benlate or Mancozeb.
For best results water only when the first few centimetres of soil or potting mix are dry and then water thoroughly so that there are no dry areas around the plant roots. In well drained soils and mixes this should result in a good balance of water and air. The large amounts of water leach out accumulated salts, toxins and carry oxygen to the roots. The better the quality of water applied the better your plants will grow in the long run, particularly plants grown in containers. Plants held indoors benefit by being taken outside when it is raining or being placed under a sprinkler for a period of time. Brown leaftips are often caused by an excessive accumulation of fertiliser salts in the potting mix. Thorough leaching will overcome this problem.
"Outdoors this is an excellent garden palm, and very easy to grow: just add water. It can tolerate full sun, but is happier and greener with some shade. If not contained, an individual palm can spread out over time covering many yards in all directions. Some plants at the Huntington Garden palm garden look like they extend over 30 feet wide. Grown in shadier conditions, these palms can get up to 8 feet tall or more, but tend to stay under 5 feet in full sun. These tolerate a variety of soils and grow fine for me in my heavy southern California clay soils. Cold tolerance is 18 F to 20 F, but much colder freezes will often only kill the above ground parts, and the plants will grow back in the spring, as long as the soil doesn't freeze as well. Rhapis excelsa is the only palm species that has dozens of named cultivars, both variegated and not, and these are prized plants for pot culture all around the world, most notably in Japan. Some of these cultivars, most dwarf in size, can cost a huge amount of money. But plants, if taken care of properly, can survive several generations and be passed down in wills along with other family treasures. For an excellent coverage of the Rhapis cultivars and much more about this species, and some of the other Rhapis as well." (Geoff Stein)
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.
Native to southern China and Taiwan, these plants are not found in the wild; all known plants come from cultivated groups. They were first collected by the Japanese for Tokugawa shogunate palaces, then Rhapis popularity spread to Europe, and later to America where its low light and humidity requirements make it a common feature in malls and offices. (Palms & Cycads)
"The most commonly grown species of Rhapis in cultivation is easily Rhapis excelsa, or the Lady Palm. This plant can be found at nearly every garden outlet center as well as most of the larger nurseries throughout the U.S., and perhaps around the world. The reason for this is it is such an easy plant to grow and maintain, with excellent cold tolerance (down to about 20 F), low-light tolerance, modest drought- and wind- tolerance, and amazing pest-resistance. And it is one of the most ideal potted palms in cultivation. It is an easy plant to propagate both by division and seed production. Of course, it is also a beautiful palm; in all, an excellent starter palm or houseplant for those with little experience." (Geoff Stien)
"Rhapis excelsa can be identified by its typical leaflets which end bluntly or raggedly, unlike most of the other common Rhapis that have pointed leaflets. Rhapis leaves typically have less than 8 to 10 leaflets per leaf (compared to Rhapis humilis or multifida which usually have more than 10, or Rhapis laoensis which usually only has 2 or 3.) These delicate, deeply split fan leaves droop from very thin petioles along most of the stem length making these palms look luxuriously bushy. If not watered sufficiently, the leaves start dying from the bottom up. Some landscapers trim the bottom leaves anyway exposing the stems for a more elegant look. The leaves often brown tip, for a variety of reasons, and landscapers will often keep cutting the tips back a bit with pinking shears to maintain the wonderful jagged look of the leaflets. Stems are heavily clothed in dark brown fibers and are about one-half inch in thickness. Sometimes stems are thinned out as well by landscapers and nurserymen to also increase elegance and beauty of the palm." (Geoff Stein)
Three fruiting branches on a female Rhapis excelsa I noticed in Ybor City - Tampa, Fl. Organs are branched to two orders, emerging within the leaf crown; the small, white fruit develop from one or rarely two or three carpels. The mesocarp is fibrous and fleshy, the endocarp thin and brittle. The small seeds sprout via remote tubular germination with a slender, undivided eophyll. Photo by Mmcknight4.
- Glossary of Palm Terms
- MODERN BOTANICAL LATIN
- "Just To Be Clear"
- Southeast Asia Program by Dr. Andrew J. Henderson
- U. of F. EDIS
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.