Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Areca Palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens): Best Air Cleaning Plant #2

The Areca Palm goes by a number of names: yellow palm, the butterfly palm. bamboo palm, or golden cane palm. It's native to Madagascar, where it grows in tropical rain forests or near moist river beds. It has since been naturalized to a number of islands near Africa, the Carribean, and Central and South America, basically any region that's tropical or subtropical and humid. And of course, it's one of the most popular houseplants in the world.

The Areca Palm is the only plant on Dr. Wolverton's list that gets a 10 out of 10 for transpiration--the rate at which it releases moisture back into the air. In fact, a 6 foot areca palm can release about one whole quart of water into the air every 24 hours, making it a great natural humidifier. Of course, this water has to come from somewhere, which means keeping watering it a LOT. You need to keep the root ball ball damp, mist regularly (at least daily), and provide humidity as much as you can, especially in a dry office or home environment (for example, putting it in a subirrigation planter or placing the planter on a bowl of rocks with water).

Ironically, while I talked earlier about how overwatering plants can cause excessive soil mites and fungus gnats, underwatering the areca palm can have the same effect, attracting nasties like spider mites, which thrive under hot, dry conditions.

Of course I can't talk about plants I buy at Kmart without finding something to complain about. And in this case, when I brought the Palm home I first notice a couple scale insects on the leaves (one pest I haven't had to deal with so far), which I immediately plucked off the plan. Luckily, it didn't look like an infestation, probably just a few that migrated over from neighboring plants. Again, great job by the Kmart in Manhattan.

After I got home, I noticed "freckles" (or if you prefer, "speckles" or "spots") all over the stems. Weirder still, I found that if I wiped them with a wet and slightly abrasive cloth (like a paper towel) they'd come right off.

I was perplexed as to what these were. I Googled it, and while I found a few others who encountered the same thing, no one seemed to know what they were. The one thing I learned is that people on the Internet love to talk about stuff they know nothing about. Some people swore these were more scale insects, but after a slight moment of panic I discounter this because they simply don't have the icky "bump" you generally see with scale. Others speculated that it's something called "flyspeck fungus". Some websites report that if you see spotting or speckling on leaves (but they didn't mention stems) it's an indication that there were salts or minerals in the water, as Arecas have the ability to move salt accumulations to selected branches (when the branches get saturated they'll die and you need to remove them, but the damage will be isolated to that frond). And others said this is just a natural phenomenon that happens with all Arecas. 

Just to be safe, I took a paper towel and some dish soap and scrubbed each of the stems. There's still spotting on them but it's a lot less than before.

I brought the plant to the office. Here's what it looks like right now: 

Arecas like indirect light, as direct sunlight can easily burn the leaves. I do have a corner of my office window that never gets direct sunlight, so I'll leave it there for a while. It helps that I have access to spring water outside my office, so I'll use that to water the plant to prevent it from having to deal with things like fluoride and salts in tap water.

My next step is going to be to repot it; while Arecas are okay being pot-bound, the current pot is too small for it to grow from its current height of about 2 feet to its standard indoor size of 6-8 feet (outdoors it can grow to 25 feet). This would require a pot that's about double what I have now.

As for the air-cleaning properties of the plant, this one ranks near the top. It removes benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene from the air.

If you're interested in an Areca Palm, this seller on Amazon is selling them, and of course you'll find them in most home centers and plant stores.

Some care tips:

1) Temperature: Keep between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
2) Sunlight: As much light as it can get without getting direct sunlight. 
3) Care and feeding: Keep the root ball damp but avoid having the pot sit in water, which can cause root rot. Mist frequently to keep a good appearance. keep spider mites away, and give it the humidity it craves and will pay back in the form of great transpiration. 

UPDATE: sadly, I didn't take my own advice. I went on a two week vacation and forgot to tell anyone to water my plant, so I came back to my Areca slumped over and dried out to the point of being brittle. No great loss, as I figure next time I'll buy it from Amazon or Home Depot or somewhere other than Kmart. I'll post pictures when I get my new Areca in.

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