What is wrong with my Areca Palm?
January 9, 2010 6:21 PM   Subscribe

Can you save my Areca Palm, or at least tell me what's wrong with it? Photos inside.

A couple months ago I bought an Areca Palm at Ikea. It made an attractive houseplant, and soon became my favorite. (It's indoors, a couple feet from a window that gets lots of sunlight, and is maybe 3' tall. I live in Massachusetts, if it's relevant.)

It began to look a bit sickly just before Christmas. I assumed it was because I had it in the small pot I bought it in, so I transplanted it to a bigger pot with a new bag of potting soil, and gave it a good watering, too. I didn't fertilize it, since that's supposed to be bad in the winter. This didn't help at all, and the plant has continued to decline. I have refrained from watering it, having read that over-watering can lead to root rot, but this hasn't helped.

I've been cutting off fronds/shoots that turn black and shriveled-up, and am cutting several a week now. It occurs to me that this is quite unmaintainable, and that soon the whole plant will be dead.

Here is a photo of the base of one stalk I cut down today. (It's resting on a frond that was also cut down; you can see it's quite dried out, even though most of the living plant showed no indication of lacking water.) It feels like the base was rotting, based on the mushy blackness. I have no idea whether the black splotches running up the base are normal or not. Here is a closeup of the inside 'pulp' of the plant after cutting, and this is the outer layer that peeled off -- note the white/pink grossness.

While cutting, I dropped the scissors as what looked like a puff of smoke came out of the plant where I was cutting. I believe it was some sort of spores, given that the plant is not on fire. The top of the soil has looked like this for a bit, almost as if someone sprinkled sugar on the soil. It wasn't as noticeable until after the spores were released while cutting off a dead shoot today.

There are a lot of white/gray balls in the soil around the base of the plant. Only a handful are visible, but I noticed hundreds while transplanting it. I assumed they were seeds or fertilizer or part of the soil at the time and thus left them intact, but am now a bit suspicious. I squeezed one and it released a milky liquid.

As I was examining the base more closely, I came across these things just under the surface of the soil. They appeared to be hollow, and were solid. I have no idea if they're just some random thing that was in the soil when the plant was sold, or if they're evidence of some sort of plant-killing critter.

Overall, from a distance, the plant looks fine. Up close, some leaf tips are turning black/brown and becoming discolored, until it spreads to the whole leaf. It seems a whole frond will go at once, but an adjacent one might be fine. Here is something that looks to be in earlier stages of decline. (Note that these photos were shot at an extremely high ISO due to low light, and exaggerate the appearance of a powdery substance on the leaves.)

I spent a bit trying to research Areca Palm ailments, but nothing I found fits with what I'm observing. Can anyone help me identify what might be occurring, and how to try to save the plant?
posted by fogster to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A few things here.

Palms do not mind being pot-bound, so I'm sorry to say that repotting it may have put the tree into shock. Not a death knell, necessarily, but does make the thing more susceptible. The balls: probably Nutricote, a slow-release fertilizer used by the grower. Worry not. On the other hand, palms are very heavy feeders, so a light feeding is not a terrible idea.

The leaf necrosis you're seeing may be fluoride poisoning. Barring finding some way to use non-fluoridated water (prohibitively expensive), it's important to keep the pH of the soil ever so slightly acidic (6.0-6.5 according to this) to discourage fluoride biouptake. Don't overwater is good advice; keep it a bit dry, in fact. Too much moisture - and most potting media are pretty highly water retentive - encourages fungus, which a weakened plant can't afford. Also, though, make sure your watering regimen is consistent.

Lastly, keep it out of drafts, in light as bright as you can manage. Good luck.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:56 PM on January 9, 2010

see my answer to this mefi question...
posted by dawdle at 7:53 PM on January 9, 2010

Response by poster: dawdle: I saw that thread, but didn't understand why you had done that. The pot I'm using looks nice but has poor drainage, so I'm hesitant to flood the plant without good reason. Did you ever figure out what happened, or was it just a successful Hail Mary pass?
posted by fogster at 10:01 PM on January 9, 2010

The "sugary" stuff on top of the soil sounds kind of like the excretions of either scale insects or mealybugs. The brown/black spots in the first photo look sort of like scale insects; do they show up elsewhere on the plant, particularly on the underside of the leaves and/or near the base of the stems? Also, if they fall off when you brush a fingernail over them, they're likely to be scale. The white powdery stuff makes me think mealybugs, though. I'm no expert; just a guy with too many plant books, and I've dealt with both of these issues before. If this is what it is (and you might need to examine a diseased area under a microscope, or at least with a strong hand lens to see if there are tiny (and I mean _tiny_) insects involved) you might want to investigate "insecticidal soap" spray. They always advise you to test some on a small area first to see if the plant reacts negatively to it. If not, go nuts - spray the underside of all the leaves, the tops, and all the branches. Also, you might want to see for sure what this kind of plant wants in terms of light; if it's an under-story plant and it's in full sun (or the equivalent) then it's not going to be happy either, although I can't think that's the main problem with yours.
posted by Death by Ugabooga at 1:24 PM on January 10, 2010

Best answer: Pink rot. I can't tell if your pot has drainage; it is very important that Areca palms be in pots that have drainage into a saucer. Just watering infrequently won't solve the problem of moisture sitting in the bottom of the pot. Pink rot is worse when there is poor air circulation and temperatures are low, so it tends to get worse in the winter when people close their windows. Put it in a place with air movement to help water move through the plant's system.

There is no (known) chemical treatment, however if this were my palm I would try the following: 1) pot palm in a pot with drainage holes if it is not already, 2) try a Neem Oil soil drench to see if it is effective on the fungus (1 tsp of neem extract per quart of water, plus a few drops of dish detergent and one tsp of white vinegar). Highly experimental, but your palm is in bad shape. I would do this once after repotting, and then once more on the next watering once the top inch of soil dries out. The fungus spreads through cuts in foliage as well- you must use very sharp blades and disinfect after each cut with alcohol.

I would expect the plant was infected before you bought it- this is the danger of buying plants from a furniture store, where no one is expected to know how to properly care for them. They probably got watered every day. Areca palms do not like to dry out more than the top 1" of soil, but they do not survive being waterlogged.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:48 PM on January 10, 2010

Best answer: I see I left out the link. Scroll down for pink rot symptoms and management. Areca palms aren't in the table because it is referring to common outdoor palms of California, but they are still highly susceptible to this disease.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:55 PM on January 10, 2010

Response by poster: Death by Ugabooga: The black spots don't come off. I think they're just discoloration.

The pot does not have drainage. I put a bowl-shaped piece of styrofoam in the bottom (upside down, so there's a big pocket of air at the bottom) with a bunch of holes to try to allow water to drain to the bottom rather than sitting in the soil as a compromise, since I had no other pot. I'll have to find a pot with good drainage and use that instead.

Thanks, all, for the help.
posted by fogster at 6:33 PM on January 11, 2010

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