Lady palms are among the most elegant and graceful palms for the tropical garden, and are perfect for tight spots where other, less ladylike palms would quickly overstep their boundaries.
Rhapis has a long history of cultivation beginning in China and ending up in Japan during the tokugawa shogunate in the early 1600's where it became a prized collectors item, starting a long line of prestigious clones that can be bought for lofty prices. Many of these specimens are diminutive, and even more sought after are the variegated ones. The size isn't just a characteristic of the individual strain, but is also affected by its cultural differences such as using small containers and root pruning, lending an appropriate resemblance to bonsai. If growth is unrestricted, they can still attain a decent size.
A slightly more affordable option to the heirloom Japanese dwarfs is to grow the species in the landscape, utilizing its upright habit and graceful multiple trunks. I recommend using it near entryways where its form can be admired, and where few other palms will really fit.
I see so many of the (less cold hardy) pygmy date palms planted in front yards where their tiny crowns expand toovertake the sidewalk, poking passerby with prickly spines! The same goes for the king sago, also painful to brush up against. The builders of our house made this mistake, and I'll have to remove it before long. So why not replace it with a lady palm? Its important to note that the roots can be invasive, but because of its slow growing nature you can usually prune the shallow stolons before they get too close to a structure.
Any Asian themed garden just begs for a foxy lady palm! Even the untrained eye will subconsciously sense the affinities between rhapis and bamboo, except lady palm is way better behaved. Try planting it alongside kurume azaleas with Japanese birds nest ferns underneath a loquat tree in homage to its Japanese (and Chinese) roots!
Another way to use rhapis excelsa or its relatives is to grow it as a hedge in a partly shaded site, and I'm sure it will be the most glamorous hedge money can buy, bringing me to my next topic...
Buying Lady Palms
They are notoriously expensive, but well worth the money. The reason they cost so much comes down to their means of propagation, which is limited to division. This wouldn't be a big deal except that lady palms can be mind numbingly slow plants, and not all divisions make it after the breakup, so I recommend picking the plant with the most suckers if you're shopping around since they'll multiply quicker. If you're looking for a great deal, it pays to do your homework and play the field, checking out the big box retailers, garden centers, as well as plant shows and plant sales where the deals can surprise you.
As a rule they don't like too much sun and prefer a partly shaded to fully shaded situation to look their best. Indoors they are among the more shade tolerant houseplants you can grow, but they will surely thank you with faster growth if they get a lot of indirect light.
Lady palms are notorious for being sensitive to the minerals in tapwater, but my potted specimen on the balcony handles our awful city water just fine, as long as I let the heavy summer rains flush out the excess salts from time to time. Keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy, and don't let them dry out too often.
Pruning is a matter of aesthetics and preference, and you can choose to let the suckers grow to cover the plant with top to bottom leaves or prune out the lower trunks with clean loppers to better expose the architectural trunks. The most preferable arrangement for me is to let three distinct canopies form, to better imitate nature.
Here's my favorite part about these heroines of my garden: They're cold hardy into zone 8 and can take a hard freeze or two. I've even heard reports of them growing back from the roots in colder situations, so they may be hardier with a little protection. There aren't many palms that can compete in the small palm category outside the tropics, and even bamboo palm is a close second. For a tropical looking palm in a residential landscape, its lady palm, hands down!
Looks like I took lady palm a little too literally in my little illustration.
Timber Press Pocket Guide to Palms by Robert Lee Riffle
All About Palms by Ortho
A Handbook of Landscape Palms by Jan Allyn