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Palms, ferns and cycads 

Well used, palms, ferns and cycads give gardens the feeling of being in a tropical resort – even if you live in the suburbs in the southern parts of Australia. There are varieties to suit all climatic conditions. Palms, ferns, and cycads come from regions all over the world including, Australia. Even though they are often grouped together as they all have fronds, palms, ferns, and cycads are different plants with different growing needs. As well as sharing frond-like leaves, many cycads are commonly known as palms – for example, sago palm (Cycas revoluta), which is one of the most commonly grown cycads in gardens


Palms are flowering plants that produce fruit. The best-known fruiting palms are date palms and coconuts. Most palms grow rapidly. There are many types of palms to grow in home gardens and even indoors in brightly lit positions. The best palms for gardens are clumping palms, which tend to stay small enough to be able to enjoy their lush fronds. The lady palm (Rhapis excelsa) is a compact, dense palm with lush green fronds that suits a courtyard or small space and can also be grown in a large pot. The golden cane palm (Dypsis lutescens) is an ideal choice for a container and can be grown indoors. It forms a clump of multiple stems and has a golden hue to its fronds and stems. Tall growing palms such as Alexandra palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) and foxtail palm (Wodyetia bifurcata) need lots of room to grow.


Ferns come in all shapes and sizes and make a great garden plant or an indoor plant in a pot. They grow naturally in shady, moist garden beds, but treated correctly, they can grow in most parts of the garden. Ferns make a great garden design feature, when planted under the protection of a tree canopy. Two of the most well-known of the Australian ferns are the birds nest fern (Asplenium nidus) or tree fern (Cyathea australis).


Cycads are very ancient plants that produce male and female cones on separate plants. They are classified as non-flowering plants known as gymnosperms and, like conifers, they produce seeds in cones. They grow slowly with a rosette of fronds, which may over time develop a small trunk. Cycads rarely branch.

Growing conditions

Aspect Most palms need an open, sunny aspect. Cycads tolerate light shade and in nature often grow in dappled light under trees. Ferns also prefer to grow in part shade under the canopy of trees. A tree fern called ‘Little Aussie Larrikin’ is the exception to the rule, growing in full sun with some summer watering.

Soil Palms and cycads tolerate a wide range of soils but do best with good drainage. Ferns grow best in soil that is kept moist and do best with free draining soil. Palms, ferns and cycads can be grown in containers.

Climate There are palm, fern, and cycad selections for every climate. Ferns prefer to be grown in the cooler parts of Australia. Be guided in your selection by those that do well in your local climate. Get advice from your hardware or garden centre for varieties that do well in your area.

General care

Watering Water regularly after planting until plants become established and during extended dry periods. As palms and cycads mature, many need little additional watering. Ferns however require moist soil so check them more often throughout the warmer seasons. Those plants in containers will need regular water.

Feeding and mulching Palms, cycads and ferns can be feed via your preferred method, either liquid or granular food or a combination of both, depending on your plant variety. Keep plants lush and leafy with a granular fertiliser such as Seasol plus Nutrients All Purpose including Natives during the growing season. Remember to water it in thoroughly after application. If you prefer liquid feeding apply PowerFeed All Purpose including Natives at half strength monthly during the growing season. For palms and cycads spread mulch such as composted bark or gravel to deter weed competition and retain moisture. For ferns spread mulch such as lucerne, sugar cane or straw around plantings to deter weed competition.

Pruning Pruning is restricted to removing spent fronds. Some palms such as date palms have spiky leaves so care should be taken when pruning. Fallen spiky fronds can also be a danger. Tall growing palms that don’t naturally shed dead foliage can provide a maintenance issue as they grow.

Watch for These plants are generally free of pest and disease problems although some plants may be attacked by various caterpillars. Some palms including date palms can become nesting sites for pest birds including starlings. Dry soil can cause ferns to wilt and dry out with brown foliage, while overwatering can cause yellow fronds and root rot so ensure soil moisture is keep consistent.