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A Fan Palm For Palm Fans

Tobias Spanner of Germany gives an in-depth profile of Chamaerops humilis - the European Fan Palm.
Tobias Spanner, Tizianstr. 44, 8000 München 19, Germany
Chamaerops No. 1, published online 23-11-2002

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Surely everyone who has ever been to the Mediterranean has seen a nice little clumping fan palm, called the 'Mediterranean' or 'European' Fan Palm. It is found in abundance there, in parks, gardens and along streets where it has been cultivated for centuries. It was introduced into northern Europe at least as early as 1731, for growing in orangeries.

As its botanical name Chamaerops humilis (gr. chamai = low; rhops = shrub; lat. humilis = low, modest) suggests, it occurs throughout its native habitat as a small clumping plant, rarely over two metres high. However, cultivated plants often grow much taller, sometimes to over 8m, and a large, old clump makes an impressive sight (...and makes one wonder how it ever came to get that name).

Chamaerops is a monotypical genus, closely related to Trachycarpus and Rhapidophyllum. Like Trachycarpus, its slender trunks are covered in masses of fibrous sheaths, although these do shed on very old plants leaving a woody core. They support crowns of numerous, small, stiff, spreading fan leaves, usually dull green above and silvery below, with wickedly spiny petioles. It is dioecious (male and female on separate plants) or sometimes polygamous. The yellow flowers are arranged on short, stiff inflorescences produced in spring and are followed by green olive-sized fruits, turning orange when ripe, in autumn. The fruit pulp of ripe seeds contains oil and butyric acid, which makes them smell a bit like rotten cheese.

As an extremely variable species, Chamaerops humilis comes in many different forms. Extreme variability can be seen firstly in the shape, size and colour of the leaves, which can be grey, green, blue or silver. Secondly in the size and shape of the entire plant (dwarf, acaulescent or tall, erect forms) and thirdly, in the size of the fruits which in some forms may only be the size of a pea.

Among the many varieties, which can be seen in cultivation are var. arborescens/eliator - a tall, solitary form; var. argentata with silvery leaves; var. elegans/gracilis with slim stems, and var. robusta with much thicker trunks.

Common in the western Mediterranean with centres of distribution in southern Spain and Morocco, Chamaerops ascends to 860m in the Balearic Islands, and to an astonishing 2300m in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where a beautiful blue-leafed form is sometimes to be found. In its native habitat it grows mainly in drier situations on cliffs, or in open woodland on sandy or rocky ground, often on limestone. Climatic conditions range from a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters with rarely a frost along the coasts, to a cool, winter-cold climate with heavy frost and snow in the Atlas Mountains.

Indeed, Chamaerops has proved to be one of the palms most adaptable to cultivation, and is widespread all over the world today, though there are still many milder parts of northern Europe where they have yet to be tried.

Adult plants will survive long periods of snow cover and occasional quite heavy frosts. Tip burn may occur on the leaves only when the temperature drops to -9° or -11°C and the palm may survive a frost down to -17°C, though it would probably lose some or all of its leaves. However, due to its small size, winter protection is easily accomplished.

Chamaerops will grow best in full sun, planted in a very well drained, alkaline, fertile, sandy loafs-, but it will also grow under less favourable conditions and is very adaptable to different soils. Good drainage is essential! Perfect drainage will ensure Chamaerops' success even in areas with cool summers, or high rainfall, and greatly improves its resistance to frosts.

It also makes a fine tub plant, which will tolerate some drying out and neglect, however, although it can take low humidity and is rarely attacked by pests, it should not be kept inside as a houseplant all year round. In a warm room, it will soon become weak, pale and unsightly, due to lack of light. In summer, potted specimens should be kept outside in a sunny spot for as long as possible. In winter, they prefer to be kept dry and at temperatures between just frost-free, and 14°C. If kept cool enough they require very little light, and can be over-wintered in an unheated garage for example, although a greenhouse would be better.

Plants in tubs will flower when still quite young, but are rather slow to form a trunk. To maximise growth, all Chamaerops should be well watered and fertilized in summer.
Propagation is usually from seed, which will easily germinate after one or two months at a temperature between 22° and 30°C. Another possibility is to separate suckers from the mother plant, but this is difficult and not always successful.

Nice plants of Chamaerops are usually available from nurseries all over Europe, although large specimens with trunks fetch high prices.

Altogether, Chamaerops humilis is really an easy plant, and because of its moderate size and its adaptability, it will surely find a place in the most modest home or garden. A rewarding plant in every respect.

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