NZ Palms, Cycads and Subtropical Plants

Landscaping with Palms and Rainforest Plants in New Zealand.

A naturalised ‘rainforest’ forming under rubber trees in Southeast Asia.  With a little inspiration one can create something far better and less weedy in New Zealand!

Rainforests gardens are dark and mysterious with shades of deepest green, dripping leaves and an air of solitude. They mix large tree ferns and palms with dainty maidenhair ferns, orchids and occasional flashes of colour.


Before you begin landscaping with you’ll need protection from the elements. There are many native trees to choose from although for speed you may like to consider the common Monterey Cypress, Cupressus macrocarpa. Large stands of bamboo are also quick growing and effective against wind and, depending upon positioning, sun.


Assuming sufficient protection, we turn to the two most important components of the rainforest garden; palm trees and tree ferns.

Palm species such as Chamaedorea microspadix thrive in dark, damp rainforest gardens.
Even with partial shade Phoenix roebelenii palms reveal themselves to be far more graceful than sun grown specimens.
Likewise, Rhapis palms are perfectly suited to heavy shade and plenty of water.
The Norfolk Island Nikau, Rhopalostylis baueri, is particularly well suited to a rainforest garden.

When it comes to tree ferns we’re spoilt for choice in New Zealand. From the giant, sub-tropical Cyathea medullaris to the tougher and more diminutive Cyathea smithii there are usually several different species of tree fern for every garden. Don’t just buy one or two but go all out and plant a dozen or more in different sizes. Do however be sure that the palm and fern fronds are not at the same height. With even a slight breeze a tree fern’s frond will ruin all but the toughest palm fronds.


Of course don’t forget the smaller ferns as under-planting. Again, you’ll need plenty rather than just dotting the odd one or two around the garden.


If you’ve a damp spot in the garden, then for big leaves and dramatic effect plant Gunnera and a mix of large aroids.

Now it’s time for some colour. Not too much however. Choose from Vireya Rhododendrons, bromeliads, bright splashes of Clivia (particularly around the solid base of Nikau Palms) and fiery New Guinea impatiens. For more subtle tastes you may prefer Cymbidium orchids.

Ferns are a must for a rainforest garden including this moisture loving bird’s-nest fern, Asplenium nidus.
Even in cold gardens Gunnera will thrive and grow to gigantic proportions.
Fill in spaces with gingers, cannas and other assorted sub-tropical big-leaved plants.
Bromeliads offer up colour and contrast well with softer leaved plants.
Bold, beautiful flowers are justification enough to plant Vireya Rhododendrons in your rainforest garden.
Massed under larger palm trees Clivia provides eye-catching colour in a mostly green rainforest.

© NZ Palms, Cycads and Subtropical Plants 2019

There are numerous tall palms suitable for landscaping rainforest gardens. Particularly attractive palms include the King Palm, Archontophoenix alexandrae, the Juçara Palm, Euterpe edulis, the Kentia Palm, Howea forsteriana and the Norfolk Island Nikau, Rhopalostylis baueri. All of these palms thrive in dark, sheltered gullies where their leaves retain a deep green colour.

Two palm trees usually associated with sunny locations but equally at home in the rainforest are the Chinese Fan Palm, Livistona chinensis and the Pigmy Date Palm, Phoenix roebelenii. Both take on a completely different appearance when planted away from direct sunlight producing impressively large leaves.


Smaller rainforest palms that are well suited to the rainforest garden include the Cascade Palm, Chamaedorea cataractarum, the Bamboo Palm, Chamaedorea microspadix and the Lady Palm, Rhapis excelsa, all of which thrive in dark positions. Another perfect palm for the rainforest, although difficult to obtain, is the dainty Wedding Palm, Lytocaryum weddellianum.