Chamaedorea elegans

ignatz713April 10, 2011

I have a 3 foot Chamaedorea elegans, approximately 10 years old, in a 12-inch clay pot. Outside of new leaves, and there is much new growth, coming in brown on some of the tips, the plant is doing okay.

At issue: the clay pot is disintegrating. It is crumbly on the surface, and comes off in small specks if touched.

My questions: should I repot? I've read here, I believe, that C/E likes to be root bound, is that correct? If I do repot, do I go up to a 14 inch or a 16 inch pot? Clay or plastic? Can I put the plant inside the new pot and then break the existing pot, since I am loathe to handle the roots?

I am trying to help my plant, but don't want to kill it with kindness!

Thank you.

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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

From a previous post: We should also try to understand that no plant will "do well when it's pot-bound" if you are using a plant with plenty of room for its roots as a comparison. If plants did better growing under root-bound conditions, Mother Nature would have arranged for in situ plants to grow with their roots in tight little cones or cubes, yet we never see that occur.

While it's true that we may be able to use the STRESS of our plants being root-bound to bend plants to our will and achieve OUR goals, the fact is that this serves US well, and not the plant. Growth - increase in biomass - is a measure of how "well" a plant is doing. Tight roots restrict growth and reduces the potential increase in mass, so even if we THINK plants are doing well because we use the stress of tight roots to get them to bloom or grow in a particular habit, the truth is they would rather have plenty of room for their roots to grow so they could grow as mother nature intended. No one is more aware of the negative influence tight roots has on growth than the bonsai practitioner who uses that tool extensively to bind down the plant's growth habits so the will of the grower, not the plant, prevails.

People often repeat the advice that palms "prefer" to be pot-bound, but the actuality of the matter is that they don't like wet feet or soggy conditions in the root zone. Small volumes of soil packed with roots inhibits growth and affects vitality, but it also allows the plant to use water in the root zone quickly, which ensures against root rot . the underlying reason for why palms seem to do better in tight quarters. Like most plants, potting them in soils that drain fast & hold no (or very little) perched water, promotes increased vitality and allows them to grow much nearer to their potential.

This plant is VERY durable, and develops adventitious roots on its stem easily. Instead of doing a 'full repot', which includes removing much, preferably all of the old soil, you can simply saw the bottom 1/3-1/2 of the root mass off. Remove a little soil around the perimeter, make some deep vertical slits in the remaining root mass, and plant it deeper in a soil that drains very freely. New roots will grow from the buried trunk and rejuvenate the plant.

It's important that you use a soil that allows you to flush the soil each time you water w/o risking the soil remaining wet for too long and encouraging root rot. When you water in small sips, you ensure the build-up of salts in the soil from fertilizer solutions and tapwater, and the spoiled foliage you're seeing.

It's possible that the spoiled foliage is from an insect problem, under-watering, over-watering, or a high level of salts in the soil, but odds overwhelmingly favor it being related to either of the latter two possibilities.



    Bookmark   April 10, 2011 at 10:05AM
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Oh my, Al, thank you. I had searched for advice (not just here) and saw more than one post that said NOT to repot and then forgotten about it. My instinct said to repot, and apparently I should have listened to me! Believe me, I was not trying to restrict this plant, I want the best for it.

Questions, yes:

--clay or plastic?

--size from the 12" -- 14" or 16" or bigger?

--when you say "use a soil that allows you to flush the soil", what do you mean? A brand, a type?

--is my idea valid of putting the old pot in a bigger one and then breaking the old pot, so as not to stress the plant by possibly shaking all the old dirt off via taking it out of the old pot first?

Hope you don't mind all the questions, this plant means a lot to me.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2011 at 10:28AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Of course we know you weren't trying to restrict your palm. ;-) There are just soo many misconceptions & old wives tales out there that it's very difficult for the progressive grower to know what to believe & what not to believe. I offered a post about The Myth that Some Plants 'PREFER' to be Root-bound that might offer more insight.

I'm not a palm grower, but I do understand plants. I often see the advice not to mess with the roots of palms too much, but I also see that advice about ALL our houseplants and know that implementing it (the advice) is counter-productive. I've discovered that more than 95% of what applies to one plant applies to ALL other plants, so it's difficult for me to believe that palms are unique and actually exhibit better growth/vitality when root-bound. I really believe the underlying reason is that they can't tolerate wet feet, so it makes more sense to GIVE them a little room and ensure that they don't GET wet feet by providing a very open (fast draining soil).

I think the concept that your soil choice is the most important consideration you'll make when establishing a planting is extremely difficult to dispute. Virtually EVERY other significant cultural influence - light, moisture levels, fertility issues, temperatures, can be easily changed by moving the plant to better light, by proper watering technique, by modifying fertilizer choices, or by changing the thermostat. Soil however, 'is what it is' for at least the interval between repots - can't be changed; so your soil choice probably exerts more influence on growth/vitality than any other culture consideration. Your soil choice determines not only whether you CAN effectively adopt favorable watering practices, but also for how long the soil will support proper practices. The latter statement refers to the tendency of peat-based soils to collapse quickly, leading to compaction and the airless and soggy conditions that accompany the collapse.

I'll leave a link to a thread for you to read below. I can almost promise that if you come to thoroughly the concept it puts forth, it will help you be a better grower for as long as you grow in containers. For many years, I wouldn't allow myself to say something like that, but so many people have said it over the years, that I now feel more comfortable saying it myself. If you scroll through the thread & note all the very positive offerings by others, you'll see the value so many others have placed on their own understanding of the concept.

If it makes sense to you too, and you decide to make the effort to improve on a peat-based soil, there will be lots of help. If you decide you'd rather stick with something easy from a bag, I can also help you get the most out of that; but from the perspective of soil choice, the key to optimizing your plants ability to grow to its greatest potential lies in your ability to keep enough water retention while reducing the ht of the perched water table (explained in the link).

Clay is better than plastic from the plant's perspective. The increased gas exchange afforded by the clay, cooler soils due to the evaporative effect that increases as temperatures rise, and the fact that you do need to water more frequently - which ensures additional gas exchange in the rootzone, are all significant pluses you don't get from containers with walls that are not gas-permeable. Anyone arguing the point that they're ugly, heavy, or they dry out quicker, isn't approaching the topic from the plant's perspective. Convenience and best plant health are, more often than not, mutually exclusive.

How much larger you can go in pot size depends on what soil you use. You can over-pot a palm easily when using a heavy, water-retentive soil, but there are also soils that hold good amounts of water that you CAN'T over-pot in. You'll read about the 'gritty mix' in the link provided - give that soil some consideration for all your houseplants. It's what I've used for 20 years. I'm constantly tinkering with soils, and I've yet to find anything better.

OK - if you're motivated & have the enthusiasm I think you do, you're off to do some reading and weigh your options. I'll be around, following the thread, in case you have more questions. You can also join the discussion at the thread I linked to if you want to get the input of others using these fast-draining soils. You'll find that group meshes nicely with your enthusiasm & carries a very positive message.



Here is a link that might be useful: I'll take you to the thread he was talking about if you click me.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2011 at 12:15PM
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Al, I'm not sure where my last answer went, but thank you. Your post is very helpful. I will set about to read up on proper soil for the repotting and if you don't mind, I most likely will have more questions.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 7:19AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

If you meant: "... is my idea valid of putting the old pot in a bigger one and then breaking the old pot, so as not to stress the plant by possibly shaking all the old dirt off via taking it out of the old pot first?", the answer is 'no'. Once a plant is allowed to become rootbound to the point the soil/root mass can be lifted from the container intact, growth and vitality are affected permanently, or at least until corrective measures are taken to straighten out the issue of root congestion. Many people think that disturbing roots are taboo, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. Plants age different than people (ontogenetically vs chronologically) and the tissues closest to the root/stem union retain their original juvenile vigor; so when you cut back closer to these tissues, you actually rejuvenate the plant, which is why in the landscape this type of (top) pruning is called rejuvenation pruning. The same thing happens when you cut back roots.

Bonsai practitioners are able to keep very large plants perfectly healthy in very small pots for very long periods, often hundreds of years, while most hobby growers have trouble keeping the same plants happy for more than a few years. The only difference is that bonsai practitioners understand how to keep the top of the plant compact & full, but more importantly they understand how to prune & manage roots.

If you're reluctant to lift your plant from the pot and inspect the roots for rot, that's fine. I do think making sure your roots are ok should be a priority, but of course it's your plant. If you DO have a root issue, it probably won't fix itself, so you may be dealing with a window of opportunity that, once past, could result in the progression of the disease and your losing the plant.

Nothing brusque in my reply Ignatz - just wanting you to have the tools you need to make good decisions. I hope you found most of my offerings helpful.


    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 8:35AM
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Hi update. Silly of me, I know, but it took a lot of courage to make the decision to re-pot. Judging from the condition of the plant, it was (as you observed) do or die, so I did it.

BTW, I didn't take your answers as brusque, and I found your suggestions very helpful. I confess, I did google you and did find detractors. So, I weighed everything and came up with my own variation.

I wasn't 100% comfortable with the 5:1:1 mix as outlined, so I bought: orchid bark; orchid soil mix, with perlite; sphagnum moss, and lime.

I went up only slightly in pot size, to 14-1/2", clay. I plunged in, broke the old pot, and amazingly, after more than 10 years, the root system was not rotted. It was NOT healthy, but it was not rotted. I mixed all the elements in a wheelbarrow (a couple handfuls of lime) and had at it, talking to the plant all the while.

It has been a week since the re-pot -- I used the excess to re-pot a variegated ivy -- and it has lost only one leaf. I have moved it to a cooler spot in the house and am trying to water it less. I realize this is a lot to ask of it, all at once, but so far, incredibly, it is hanging on.

I was hesitant to come back, lest it died immediately, but I want to thank you for your advice and encouragement. I was sad to find there are detractors out there, as I observe that you are passionate about plants and dispensing advice.

Thank you, Al.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 10:26AM
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Al, I don't know if you're still reading here, but it's been two months and my dear palm has new growth with NO brown tips on it!

I 'hope' this is a sign of success? It is odd, from the time I repotted it to approx. 2 weeks ago, it appeared to be drooping. Suddenly, about when the new growth started to appear, it seemed to perk up.

It 'may' just have been me, but I would swear I am not mistaken!

Again, thank you, thank you, Al.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2011 at 7:56AM
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