Caring for cat palm | Chamaedorea cataractarum

They sure got it right in the Victorian Era: indoor palms make amazing houseplant choices with their large, elegant leaves. Although Chamaedorea cataractarum (the cat palm) went somewhat out of fashion a while ago due to its supposed fussiness, we feel it’s worth the extra work to keep it happy.

Keep reading to find out all about caring for cat palm and growing this beauty in your own home!

Name(s) (Common, scientific) Cat palm, cataract palm, cascade palm, Chamaedorea cataractarum
Difficulty level Medium
Recommended lighting Bright indirect
Water Keep moist
Soil African violet soil

Cat palm natural habitat

Cat palms are found in southeastern Mexico along stream banks. In fact, their feet will often actually be submerged in flowing water. In these habitats, they are typically sheltered by larger, taller trees.

Caring for cat palm: light and temperature

Light

Cat palm trees love lots of bright light and can take some direct sun, but they are still relatively susceptible to burning. If possible, they should be placed near east or south-facing windows that receive plenty of sun (in the Northern hemisphere).

To avoid scorching the leaves, you can try not putting your cat palm in the actual windowsill. Instead, place the plant 1 to 3 feet away. Alternatively, you could use a thin curtain to diffuse the most intense rays.

Temperature

Cat palm trees do well indoors since their ideal temperature range is the same as that of a human. Average room temperature works perfectly for this tropical, though anything between 10 to 27 °C (50 to 80 °F) will be tolerated.

Be sure to keep the plant away from drafts and sources of cold such as single-paned windows, as it really won’t tolerate being exposed to cold for extended periods of time.

Cat palm growing in the sun
Hover to pin to Pinterest. Image: Forest & Kim Starr

Caring for cat palm: soil and planting

Soil

If you want to be successful in caring for cat palms a light, well-draining soil is the way to go. Although these plants enjoy having moist soil, the water can’t be stagnant. If the roots sit too long in still water, they can fall victim to the dreaded root rot, a silent killer of many houseplants.

The soil mixture doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You can use an African violet mixture, which should offer a good combination of drainage and airiness but also retain water. When mixing yourself, a combination of potting soil, peat moss, perlite and possibly even some bark chips should do the trick.

Planting

Since cat palm trees are slow growers, they don’t require much repotting to thrive. You’ll probably really only be repotting every three years or so. Just keep in mind that these plants like to be cozy, so a new planter only has to be slightly larger than the last one. It’s also recommended to repot at the same depth and avoid messing with the roots too much since they’re quite brittle.

One thing to keep in mind when caring for cat palm trees is how you’ll manage your plants as they grow. Palm-wise these guys are really not among the largest ones, but at up to 6 feet (1.80m) tall they are still big for an indoor plant.

While moving a plant around is easy when it’s small and on a table, things will get harder as your cat palm matures. You may want to invest in casters or plant dollies to make moving them around a bit easier.

Chamaedorea cataractarum

Watering cat palm

One of the key elements for mastering cat palm care is being in tune with how much water your specimen needs. Cat palms don’t do well with dry soil, preferring instead to be evenly moist.

We can’t tell you how often to water a plant as it’s entirely dependent on the growing conditions, but you can easily check yourself by pressing your finger a couple of inches into the soil. If the soil is dry, it’s time to water this one!

Cat palms love a good soak! When watering, be sure to run plenty of water right through the soil until it starts dripping out of the bottom. Once the dripping stops, you’re good to go. This is also why it’s super handy to have larger plants on casters or plant dollies. If you have an outdoor space, you can just roll your plants outside and imitate a rainstorm with little effort. Alternatively, you can place your cat palm in the shower or tub to water.

What’s important when it comes to cat palm care is humidity. These palms naturally occur along streams in tropical climates, so it’s not hard to imagine they’re used to pretty humid air. This can be tricky to maintain depending on where you live. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do when caring for cat palm trees, such as:

  • Using a humidifier, especially during winter.
  • Misting, though the effectiveness of this is the subject of debate.
  • Placing plants on pebble trays (although this may not be possible for larger plants).
  • Keeping plants in bathrooms so they can benefit from steam.
  • Grouping plants together to make a little indoor rainforest. Place the ones that thrive on high humidity, like the maidenhair fern, in the middle.

Tip! When watering, it’s highly recommended to use distilled, rain, or at least aged tap water. Cat palms are very sensitive to the dissolved solids in our tap water, like fluorides and chloramine. In fact, it’s important to keep an eye on the soil for this reason. If you’re seeing deposits build up on the soil, you’ll need to give it a thorough flush using distilled water.

DSC02015

Propagating cat palm

Cat palm trees grow from seeds, which are slow to germinate, and it takes years for seedlings to grow into beautiful trees. Even with the best cat palm care, you’ll have to be patient, although growing a cat palm from seed is obviously still a fun project.

Although the roots of this palm tend to be bunched together, dividing them for propagation purposes can be a bit risky. As mentioned earlier the roots are brittle and you might end up with two very bare specimens rather than the one healthy one you had before.

Cat palm fertilizer

Cat palm trees aren’t very demanding when it comes to fertilizers, which is normal for plants that grow slowly. They benefit from being fed once a month during spring and summer months, with a lull during fall and winter. Some people may feed their plants once or twice during fall and winter while others don’t feed at all.

Whenever you do feed your plants, try to use only half of the recommended amount and don’t forget to dilute. When it comes to cat palm care, it’s better to use too little fertilizer than too much.

Problems with cat palm

  • Cat palms can take a beating from the usual pests, such as mealybugs.
  • They appear to be especially susceptible to spider mites, which thrive in low humidity. Discourage these pests by regularly misting and wiping the leaves of your palm.
  • One disease to watch out for is leaf spot, which is a disease where you’ll start seeing yellow, tan, or black clusters of spots along the leaves. It can be bacterial or fungal in nature, and can sustain itself in the dead leaf material as well. You may need a fungicide to help control the outbreak.
  • If you notice the leaf tips turning brown, it can be a sign that you need to introduce more moisture, whether through watering or upping the humidity. Alternatively, you might need to flush the soil with distilled water.
Howea forsteriana, Chamaedorea cataractarum, Ficus binnendijkii 'Alii'

Buying cat palm

If you want to get your hands on cat palm trees of your own, you’re in luck since they’re common houseplants. If you have trouble finding them in local stores, you can easily find beautiful specimens online, such as here.

Since there are many palm trees, with some definitely not cultivated for thriving indoors, just be sure to look for the scientific name to get the exact plant you want. It’s easy to confuse cat palms with other common indoor palms like the Kentia and Areca palm!

Is cat palm toxic to cats and dogs?

It’s not known for sure if cat palm is safe for cats since we can’t find it in any toxic plant databases such as that of the ASPCA. The general consensus is that cat palm is safe for cats and dogs because the closely related Chamaedorea elegans (miniature fish tail palm) is listed as being non-toxic to cats and dogs.

In any case, you should always try to keep pets away from houseplants in general. Ingestion of any plant can cause tummy aches (and a sad plant!).


If you have any more questions about caring for cat palm or if you want to share your own experiences with this lovely indoor palm, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below! Happy planting 🌿

Cover photo: Bobby McCabe (CC BY-NC 2.0)


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