Phoenix roebelenii

pygmy date palm


Phoenix roebelenii

O'Brien 1889

pronounced: FEE-nicks roh-bell-EN-ee-eye

(Arecaceae — the palm family)


common names: pygmy date palm, pigmy phoenix palm

Phoenix is from the Greek word φοινιξ (phoinix), purple, purple-red, crimson; roebelenii is named for Carl Roebelen (1855–c.1927), a famous German plant collector, mainly of orchids. There are quite a few other plants named for him. He found the Pygmy Date Palm in Laos. Roebelen was one of a number of collectors who fed the orchid mania in Europe in the mid to late 19th century. The craze decimated, and even wiped out, native populations of orchids. Single orchids were fetching the equivalent of up to $20,000 each in today’s money. When a new orchid was found, collectors often had instructions to strip the area of each and every specimen of the orchid, so that the nurserymen they were supplying would have exclusive rights to the species. This was at a time when nobody had learned how to grow orchids from seed. Roebelen collected, in Mindanao, the fabulous Phalaenopsis sanderiana for Frederick Sander. He stripped the area of 21,000 plants, almost the entire population of the orchid. A hurricane struck the islands, and the whole shipment was lost. When Sander heard of the loss, he cabled to Roebelen , "re-collect".

This palm has its home in the damp tropical forests near the Mekong River, from Yunnan Province in southern China, northern Laos and northern Vietnam. It is small to medium-sized, a slow-growing slender tree usually 2 – 3 m in height, with a spread of 2 – 3 m. In its natural state, it has several trunks, but under cultivation usually only one.

The leaves are grey-green in colour, with scurfy pubescence below, and feather-like; the petioles are spined. With age it develops a trunk with old leaf scars, and the foliage sits and fans out above the trunk. The fronds reach over a metre in length, with about 100 leaflets 15 – 25 cm long and 1 cm broad, slightly drooping. The flowers are small, cream or yellowish, produced on a 45 cm inflorescence. These are followed by egg-shaped black edible fruits, drupes about 1 cm long, resembling a small, thin-fleshed date.

The Pygmy Date Palm has become a popular ornamental plant in tropical to warm temperate areas, including Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, southern California, southern Nevada, coastal Texas, Florida, and parts of Louisiana and Arizona – it is one of the most widely used landscape palms in the USA, and is frost-hardy down to about –4ºC. It is also widely used in south-western Europe. These palms are often planted in groups of 3 to 5 specimens. The popularity of this species is probably due to its small stature, slow growth, easy care, and its graceful crown. The palm likes partial to full sun, and requires little pruning to develop a strong structure. It is resistant to pests, is tolerant of soil variation, and moderately drought tolerant. It is used as a specimen in small gardens, and in pots, even being grown indoors. For it to thrive indoors, it must have good light.

Several Lepidoptera species use this as a food plant, including:

      • the Orange Palm Dart Cephrenes augiades;
      • the Yellow Palm Dart Cephrenes trichopepla; and
      • the Common Anthelid Anthela acuta.


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 11th March 2019