Queen Palm Tree vs. King Palm Tree

Monarchs in the palm family (Arecaceae), king and queen palms rule many a landscape in the Centurion area. An Australian native, the king palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana or Archontophoenix alexandrae) spreads wide, verdant-green plumes in a showy canopy. The South American queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) offers vivid clusters of orange fruits in addition to emerald fronds. Singly or grouped, both kinds of palms rank high for adding texture, symmetry and tropical effects to public and private spaces.

The Matriarch

The smooth, gray, straight-trunked queen palm may attain a height of 18 meters and a spread of 6 – 8 meters. The frequent landscaping choice doesn’t drop browning fronds on its own and requires regular grooming to retain its appearance. Other required cleanup is due to perpetually produced heavy clumps of 1.5to2.5-cm long fruits. Fallen ripe fruits can germinate, producing tiny saplings. The queen thrives in full sun and is slightly more cold-tolerant than her male-named counterpart.

The Patriarch

The king palm has a slimmer, more brownish trunk than the queen and grows up to 15 meters when measured from the crown at maturity, providing a generous umbrella of fronds. Its pink spring blooms yield round, green, 1/2-cm long fruits that gradually turn bright red. The self-cleaning king doesn’t require as much maintenance as the queen, although all palms should be tended regularly because dropped or wilted dead fronds are a fire hazard and can harbor rats and snakes. King palm isn’t quite as hardy as the more adaptable queen but is more flexible regarding light requirements, doing fine in full sun and shade.

Royal Treatment

Both varieties of palms prefer well-drained soil and moderate watering to a 600cm soil depth. Use a fertilizer formulation specifically for palms, which require more potassium than some other plants. Apply 500 grams of palm fertilizer for every 2.5cm of a palm’s trunk diameter three times yearly to coincide with seasonal growth in spring, summer and fall, generally sometime in February, June and October. Apply a complete fertilizer formulation that contains three times as much nitrogen and potassium as phosphorus, such as 15-5-15 fertilizer. Palm tree fertilizers typically also contain beneficial magnesium and other recommended trace mineral elements. Apply the fertilizer within a grass-free ring extending at least 30cm from each tree trunk’s circumference. Unlike some other landscape trees that are fertilized best at the drip line, which is under the outermost tips of their branches, palms are fed a few inches from their trunk area. Work the fertilizer into the soil, and water the soil as you usually do.

Crowning Glory Care

Queen palm is among the trees particularly susceptible to potassium deficiency, which can be visually identified by yellowing leaves. Older fronds are the first to show signs of damage. Stave off the condition with a potassium-rich fertilizer, or add supplemental potassium at the rate as prescribed by supplier for soil surface. Both king and queen palms are susceptible to pink rot, which causes weakening and disfigurement of trunks and foliage. The most effective course of action for that problem is prevention. Avoid stress-inducing situations for the palms, such as overwatering or premature trimming before dead fronds give way easily. Pink rot, debilitating or even deadly, also can be brought on by exposure to temperatures of 45 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

Keep the Lawn Away

Don’t allow the lawn to come right up to the base of queen palms, and don’t plant flowers or shrubs around their trunks. The trunks of queen palms are fragile, and lawn mowers, string trimmers and other tools typically used to maintain a lawn or flowerbed can damage the palm tree and weaken it. Instead, spread a couple inches of mulch around the base of queen palms. Shredded bark or wood chips work well.

Groom with Care

Once or twice a year, use a pruning saw or pole saw to cut off any brown or dead fronds that are dangling downward. This doesn’t just keep your queen palms looking freshly groomed, but it also helps reduce the risks of injury and disease created by weak palm fronds. Avoid trimming fronds that are partially green, as the tree is still receiving nutrients from them. Trimming off the seed pods will not harm the tree’s health.

Symptoms of Water Stress

Water stress usually appears on palms as reduced growth and a browning of leaflet tips that spreads as the condition worsens. These symptoms appear on oldest leaves first, though young leaves also eventually whither and die, and the meristem or bud may also die. Some species of palm demonstrate a lack of water with wilting leaflets or leaflets folding along the midrib. In older, established palms, the trunk may shrivel or collapse.

Soil Moisture

The moisture level in the soil around the palm is generally a reliable and the earliest indicator of whether or not the palm requires supplemental water. If the soil an inch below the surface of the ground feels completely dry to the touch, the palm is likely in need of water.

Symptoms of Overwatering

In general, palms are more likely to suffer as a result of overwatering than underwatering. The entire palm canopy may wilt and suffer discoloration when the soil is waterlogged. Excessive water around the palm roots also leaves the tree susceptible to rot diseases and nutrient deficiencies. Where established palms are surrounded by irrigated turf, the palms often receive too much water and benefit from a turf-free ring around the base. If a palm experiences alternating periods of low and excessive water, the trunk may split or crack.

Watering New Palms

Newly planted palms require more, regular water than established specimens. A thorough watering should occur within four to six hours of planting. Throughout the period of establishment, palms require weekly watering or at least an inch of rainfall. The root mass and surrounding soil should remain moist but not saturated for the first four to six months. In particularly sandy soils, the palm may benefit from watering twice per week. Where a new palm is surrounded by turf, the water applied to the turf is usually inadequate and supplemental water is necessary.

Watering Considerations

Water should be applied to the soil around the palm at a rate no higher than about 7.5 liters per minute. The palm’s root system extends widely beyond the base of the tree, so it benefits from irrigation not concentrated solely at the base of the tree. A grass-free ring or mounded berm around the base of the tree at the edge of the root mass makes it easier to ensure that the palm roots receive adequate water. A layer of mulch conserves soil moisture, blocks weed and regulates soil temperature. Palm trees require less water during cool winter months and should not receive water if a freeze is anticipated.