Golden Cane Palms – Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em!

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The yellowy-gold colour of the petioles and inflorescence of the Golden Cane palm is what gives this tropical and sub-tropical clumping palm its common name. Image: © Sarangib

The Golden Cane palm (Dypsis lutescens) is a popular landscaping plant throughout the tropics. Its yellowy-gold petioles and infloresences and the more brownish-golden colour of its older fronds provide a contrast to the deeper greens of many other clumping palms. It’s fast-growing, easy to look after and, when mature, makes a great windbreak when planted as a hedge along a property boundary.

The palm is a heavy feeder but once established still seems to thrive on neglect. It looks best when given plenty of water but will survive long dry seasons with infrequent watering with no problems at all.  As well as being a useful screening plant, it looks good as a landscape feature plant and makes an attractive tub plant which can be taken indoors for extended periods. For all those reasons the Golden Cane palm has plenty of fans.

But if you’ve every had the misfortune of moving into a house where the previous owner planted them around a swimming pool or near paved paths, you may not be such a fan when you discover that their roots have damaged pipes or lifted paving slabs. The Golden Cane has a very adventurous and fibrous surface root system that can do a lot of damage when planted in the wrong place.

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The invasive surface roots of the Golden Cane palm can do a lot of damage to pavers and pipes around swimming pools. Image: © Peter Saunders

If you have a large garden and you plant them away from the house, pool or paths, then you should have no problem with Golden Canes. If you like the look of them and are prepared to regularly clean the palms of their dead fronds (which can make them look untidy) then there’s not much you will need to do to keep them looking good other than watering and fertilizing them.

When planting them as a boundary screen you can let all the suckers grow to make the palm bushy from the ground up, but when planting as a feature palm, it’s better to remove the young suckers leaving about 6-8 main stems. If the young suckers are already developing roots, they can be potted up as a new plant.

If you have a smaller garden or want to plant a clumping palm near the house or pool, then you will do better to plant a species with a less aggressive root system. Some good alternatives are the Macarthur palm (Ptychosperma macarthurii) and Clumping Betel Nut (Areca triandra) but they only grow about half as fast as the Golden Cane. The Red Sealing Wax palm (Cyrtostachys renda) is another extremely attractive alternative (also known as Lipstick palm in some countries) but that’s even slower growing unless you are living in an equatorial zone with very humus-rich soil.

The Clumping Betel Nut and Sealing Wax palms are not as sun tolerant as the Golden Cane until well established, so keep that in mind when doing your landscape planning. If you have a shady area to landscape, then you can also consider the Clumping Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii) as well. They will tolerate about half a day of sun once mature.

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Bromeliads are one of the few species of plants that do well around the base of Golden Cane palms in the tropical garden. Image: © Russell Fox

Aside from the problem with the Golden Cane palm’s roots, another reason some gardeners hate them is that not many understory plants will grow close to them because the thick mat of surface roots take most of the moisture and nutrients out of the soil. However, bromeliads thrive around Golden Canes because they need little soil to grow in and they like the semi-shaded aspect that the palms provide.

Golden Canes like to be heavily mulched otherwise their surface roots will dry out too quickly. 5-10 cm of mulch is ideal depending on the type of mulch used. However, even if they are not mulched, they are so hardy they will still thrive, but at a slower pace of growth and perhaps with the foliage not as lush.

For feeding, a balanced N-P-K fertilizer is fine, but one with more nitrogen (N) than the other elements is best. If you prefer organic fertilizers, any type is suitable, and they are best applied before mulching. Whenever you need to top up the mulch, pull what’s left of the old mulch back, add the organic fertilizers and then reapply the mulch over it. Slow release fertilizers are fine too when the plant is young, but once the plants are more than two metres tall, bulk fertilizers will be a more economical option. Water the palms well after fertilizing.

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Golden Cane palms on terracotta pots on display at a nursery. They make great tub plants on a sunny outdoor patio. Image: © khak

As well as garden plantings, Golden Canes make great tub plants. They won’t grow as fast or as tall in a pot, but they are one of the easiest plants to grow in patio tubs or planters. However, they do tend to become more susceptible to mealy bug and scale when constrained in a tub, so keep an eye on the underside of the fronds when watering for any early signs of pest infestation.

If you do see mealy bug or scale appearing, make the effort to control it early to avoid the use of chemical pesticides. Usually an old toothbrush dipped in soapy water is all you need to remove a small infestation of mealy bug or scale. Use a slow release fertilizer to keep tub plants growing as vigorously as possible, and this will help to keep them resistant to pests and diseases.

Golden Canes make good indoor plants too, but the lower light conditions make them even more susceptible to mealy bug and scale indoors, so having two pot plants and rotating them between indoors and a semi-shaded spot in the garden is a good way of keeping them healthy. Whilst indoors give the plants as much light as possible. They won’t do well in a dark corner.

When watering Golden Canes in pots or planters, remember that mature plants can develop a very dense root system that can become matted and prevent water from reaching all of the root system. Therefore, outdoor tub plants should be well soaked when watering, and smaller indoor pot plants are best left to soak in a half-full laundry sink or bath for five minutes to ensure that the water soaks right through the root system.

By the way, older gardeners may know the Golden Cane palm as Chrysalidocarpus lutescens because that’s its old botanical name. Some countries also refer to it as the Madagascar Palm for its common name.

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