NZ Palms, Cycads and Subtropical Plants

Small Palms for New Zealand.

For many people the perception of palm trees is that they’re tall plants quite unsuited to small city gardens. Here are some palms that are very much the opposite and will never outgrow a small courtyard or garden.

Dwarf and short palm trees
Slow growing, the Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) will take several decades to get taller than around 2m
The gorgeous and small Cascade Palm (Chamaedorea cataractarum) won’t grow any taller than 1.5-2m
The tiny and unusual Metallic Palm (Chamaedorea metallica) won’t grow much taller than 1.5m
The Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea microspadix) gets bushy rather than tall
Most Radicalis Palms (Chamaedorea radicalis) are short and trunk-less whilst even the trunked form is a relatively small palm
The Mediterranean Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis) is a slow grower and will remain as a small palm for years

Chamaerops humilis

Not the obvious choice for a small garden but given the Mediterranean Fan Palm’s slow growth rate it’ll be many (many!) years before this palm gets out of hand. And when it does it’ll be worth a fortune. Like many desert palms it’ll tolerate chills, sun and general neglect. Perfect for a large pot in a sunny courtyard.


Dypsis baronii

Perhaps the most desirable palm in northern New Zealand the Sugar Cane Palm resembles a smaller and more colourful Golden Cane Palm. We say colourful as this palm can be quite variable in terms of colour; green, yellow, reddish-pink, deep red et cetera. It’s also small enough in that it rarely grows much taller than around 10-12 foot tall. When grown in a sheltered, sunny spot it clusters well producing a thicket of stems. If you can get hold of this one then buy it for your garden, house or courtyard!

The very desirable Sugar Cane Palm (Dypsis baronii) is a relatively short palm and would never get too large for a small garden
The Chinese Fan Palm (Livistona chinensis) will take many years to develop a reasonable trunk
The graceful little Wedding Palm (Lytocaryum weddellianum) will always be small
The Pygmy Date Palm (Phoenix roebelenii) is a slow grower taking maybe 60 years to reach 3m tall

Sabal minor

As the name suggests this palm is the smallest member of the Sabal family. It’s painfully slow growing and will, if you are prepared to wait 200 years, eventually reach several metres tall. Realistically however you’ll have a small fan palm with tough grey-coloured leaves that’ll remain trunk-less for years and perhaps reach around 1.5m tall. Perfect for a sunny spot in a small garden.


Zamia furfuracea

There are a number of small cycads that’ll never take over your garden or outgrow a small pot. The Cardboard ‘Fern’ is perhaps the best known of them. Mature planted specimens are unlikely to reach larger than a one metre diameter and a height of perhaps 50cm. Potted plants will take a generation to out-grow a 40cm pot.

The Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa) is a slow growing small palm that’ll never get out of hand
The Dwarf Palmetto Palm (Sabal minor) will take decades to even form a trunk
The Cardboard ‘Fern’ (Zamia furfuracea) is a delightful small cycad that won’t take up much space

© NZ Palms, Cycads and Subtropical Plants 2019

Beaucarnea recurvata

Whilst the Ponytail Palm can eventually get rather large they take many, many years before they’ll move beyond being a small plant. If kept in a pot it’s unlikely they’ll ever get too large. For a city garden this plant is perfect for withstanding neglect, chill winds and drought. Best of all the new leaves of some varieties turn a deep red in the sun.

Chamaedorea microspadix

Yet again the (non-spreading) Bamboo Palm makes another list. In this case on account of its relatively small stature. With a mature height of around 2.4m it’ll never dwarf a small decking or courtyard. What’s more, with its multiple stems and – if trimmed carefully – habit of holding fronds at different heights it makes a good screen.


Chamaedorea radicalis

The tough Radicalis Palm actually comes in two forms; a trunk-less form that barely reaches more than two-foot-tall and a (much rarer) trunking species that produces a palm around 2-3m tall. For such a delicate small palm it’s incredibly cold-hardy and will never outgrow the smallest of locations.

Chamaedorea cataractarum

The Cascade Palm is a low growing, clumping, small palm that’s unlikely to ever grow taller than around four-foot-tall in most locations. It’s a palm that prefers mild, damp (even wet) locations with protection from the sun. That said, well-watered plants can look good in the sun and make a nice alternative to the Pygmy Date Palm.


Chamaedorea metallica

The diminutive Metallic Palm will take years to grow taller than perhaps four foot tall. Its silver-black colouring is striking if kept in a dark location. Along with Chamaedorea elegans, the familiar Parlour Palm, it’s the perfect small palm for those seeking a tiny palm tree.

Livistona chinensis

Much like Chamaerops humilis, the Chinese Fan Palm does eventually grow quite large. It is however moderately slow growing so there’s no fear of it taking over your garden in just a few years. If kept in a pot and watered well you’ll have many years before size become an issue.


Lytocaryum weddellianum

As a dainty and graceful little palm there’s no beating the Wedding Palm (assuming you can find a semi-mature one). If protected from the sun it develops into one of the most beautiful small palms. Perfect for a sheltered courtyard.

Phoenix roebelenii

The common name says it all – the Pygmy Date Palm is ideal for those with limited space. Be it a sunny or dark spot, planted or in a pot this palm with take forever to reach a full height of around 3m tall. What’s more, this palm gets more beautiful with age as the trunk twists and turns towards the sun. Easily sourced and tough – there’s no excuse not to have one of these.

Rhapis excelsa

The Lady Palm has the distinct advantage of being as large or small as one wishes it to be. If planted it will cluster and, given time, eventually reach 4m in height. It is however easily maintained by trimming the slow growing runners and removing the tallest trunks. A well-tended mature plant may be kept in a spot perhaps 50cm x 50cm and around 2-3m tall. Kept in a pot (perhaps 40-50cm diameter) with shelter from the sun and good watering it’ll be many years before you need to consider re-potting.