These are our chief ornaments in the conservatory of the wealthy, or the room or veranda of the more humble home. As fine ornamental plants they stand preeminently at the head. For many years they have been grown in hothouses and conservatories, but it is only within thirty years that they became the plant for the million. In Europe hundreds of acres of glass are devoted to their culture and a very large area of glass in this country is now occupied with the raising of hundreds of thousands of small palms for the commercial trade. I am one who has never seen the palms flourish in the tropics, but I have seen many species in the Botanic Garden of Kew, and other botanic gardens, where you have to ascend a spiral staircase to get a good view of these giants of the tropics. Grand and noble they may be with their gigantic leaves and plumed heads towering up eighty or 100 feet high, and novel and majestic they must first appear to the traveler from the temperate zones, but they are associated with dark skins, a hot climate, crocodiles and poisonous insects, and the resident Caucasian among them would doubtless often sigh for his native maple, pine, oak or hickory, or a handful of his childhood 's flowers, the primrose, heather, goldenrod, or trillium.
A palm of medium size, say a kentia with a stem of three or four feet and perfect leaves, or a latania with a spread of ten feet and perfect, are much handsomer to me than the large but well kept specimens at Kew. Large specimens of the cocoanut palm, Phoenix dactylifera, Caryota urens, Latania Bor-bonica. and others, we can remember as long as we can tops and marbles, but there are several of our most useful palms that were not then introduced.
As a small ornamental plant to adorn the living-room, there is nothing, either in beauty or hardiness, that compares with the palm, and it is these qualities that make it so universally popular, and it is a popularity that there is not the slightest fear will ever recede. Years ago fine specimens were grown to be looked at, admired and discussed, and rarely seen in small, useful sizes. Now they are used everywhere and on all occasions. Besides the universal use of them to adorn the lawn and veranda in summer and the drawing-room and parlor in winter, they are now seen at every social function, marriages and funerals, receptions, dances, orations and commencements, store openings, dog shows, and Midway plaisances; some of the performances in the latter resorts being peculiarly Oriental, the palm is a most appropriate adjunct to the tropical dance, etc.
Palms are widely distributed over the warmer parts of the globe, and the natives of these regions have found a use for their fruit. The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is the chief sustenance of millions. The milk and pulp of the cocoanut are a leading article of diet in all tropical countries. The leaves are used as thatch to cover huts, and the hard stem is utilized for building and in many other ways.
Many palms do well planted out in the mild states of our country. We are continually told by tourists of the fine chama?rops and braheas that are seen in California, and that most splendid palm, Latania Borbonica, thrives in the Channel Island, where only a few degrees of frost occur. It is this ability to endure a low temperature (but only a limited number will stand a frost) that makes them of such great value to us as decorative plants, and again, being natives of some of the warmest parts of the globe, palms like the kentia will thrive under the great changes of temperature that frequently occur in a living-room, hot to suffocation if baby is cold, and down to 40 degrees if John lets the furnace get low. This is not the way to grow them, but it is their nature to survive these changes and makes them our unequaled house plants.
It would be quite interesting if some statistician could trace the annual increase in the output of the palms for the past thirty years. In this country at least it would (please excuse the simile) be not unlike the career of the bicycle: At first rare, and, when seen, stared at by multitudes. Soon those that could afford them purchased one, then as prices became more popular the majority had one, or, for a variety, two or three. Then, when the best patterns or varieties came on the market and manufacturers and growers turned out so cheaply the best kinds, warranted not to break at the forks or turn brown on the tips, our errand boy takes home to his washer-woman mother a Kentia Belmoreana mounted on a $20 "Rolling Ranger" paid for on the dollar-a-week, installment plan.
Within a very few years some firms are importing a useful size of kentia; they are grown and we receive them in small green wooden tubs. These tubs are a vast improvement over the ordinary pots, particularly so when you have to use these palms in decorating. The light wooden unbreakable tub will appeal to you at once as having many advantages over the heavy, brittle pot.
The raising of palms in this country, of the useful commercial kinds, is a large part of the business of a few of our largest firms. Formerly many thousands were imported, particularly kentias, but that is fast dropping off, for prodigious quantities are now grown here annually. Arecas are much better grown here, and so I think are all useful species. We may have a colder climate to contend with in winter, a matter of trifling consequence in a house or acre of palms, and surely with proper care and management we have the right summers. We never see such short, sturdy, finely developed kentias or latanias imported as those grown here by some of our own firms, but not by all. The latanias we see from Belgium are handsome in appearance, but drawn, long leaf stalks, and are only fit to put in a palm house and grow a year to accustom them to the treatment that we expect our palms to endure and come up smiling.
The general florist who buys his young palms from some of the home firms and wants them to retail or use at once, as do all storekeepers who have no greenhouse, and the very great majority of greenhouse men as well, will find out (if that is not already discovered) that there are palm growers and palm growers, and a vast difference there is in the quality of plants they send out. In very large establishments, where house after house is palms, they are manufactured quickly, and quality is entirely subservient to quantity. They are stood very close together, kept very warm summer and winter, altogether inadequate ventilation is given, and the shade is of the permanent kind; if not kept on all the year, then at least nine months of the twelve. The difference between these palms and those grown with plenty of room, abundance of fresh air, and shade only from the direct rays of the sun, is very marked. The former are run up with long leaf stalks, the growth is soft, and the color is a dull green. The properly grown plants, even if the temperature has been high, are quite different. They are shorter, stouter, giving the plant the appearance of having far more leaves; they are a bright shining green and are altogether more satisfactory to the purchaser, wherever you put them.
These remarks cover a good deal of the ground relative to the culture of most palms. For the commercial men they must be grown without excessive heat; this is particularly true of arecas. They must have had plenty of ventilation whenever it was possible, room to develop their handsome leaves, and not made soft by a heavy shade. I can only see one use for these unnaturally grown tall kentias or latanias: they make an effective appearance at a decoration, but are so soft that a few journeys to "society" soon deprive them of their beauty.
There is some difference of opinion about the advisability of standing palms in the broad sun. In the tropics, as most all of our commercial palms in a natural state rear their plumed crowns to the tropical suns, there can be little fear of their burning if their roots are in the proper condition, and I have proved time and again that if their roots are not too crowded and they are regularly supplied with water that the kentias, latanias, chamaerops and phoenix receive not the slightest injury in the broad sun. If allowed to get dry in 10-inch or 12-inch pots, they will burn, and so will a geranium in a pot with its roots parched. The arecas, the most decorative of all palms, do not burn, but they lose the color so much that it is not well to put them out in the sun. They are better always under glass. The phoenix are the least susceptible to any harm from sun, wind or rain; in fact, they are grand plants for a vase or the center of a tropical bed.
Some experience with kentias a few years ago may be of interest. A wealthy patron desired six large palms. They were duly supplied from a large Philadelphia firm. They had been standing in a warm shaded house and when exposed to our bright June suns burnt slightly. Then the cunning busybody came along and informed Mr. W. that they would never do out of doors and the palms came very near being returned. Being faithfully watered they made one or two new leaves during the summer, leaves which did not burn and now at the end of the fourth year they have grown into splendid specimens standing on the lawn every summer, and we have the satisfaction of being reminded often by the owner of these kentias: " You were right about the palms; glad I kept them, they are splendid."