Palms at Land's End

Chris Arundel on a palm hunt in Britain's South West.
Chris Arundel, 25 Howard Street, Fishergate, York, YO1 4BQ, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 1, published online 23-11-2002

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The Penzance Butia.

This is the story of a visit to Cornwall, which I made in August last in order to look for interesting palms and to see how they, and other exotic plants, were recovering after the extraordinary frosts of January 1987.

At my home in York I raise a number of exotic but fairly hardy plants including several New Zealand species, together with Eucalyptus, which I grow from seed collected in high altitude areas of Australia. Inevitably I end up with a surplus of young plants each year, which I either give to friends, or sell via a local wholefood store. The rest I offer to public gardens, in the hope that visitors will see the plants and be inspired to grow them for themselves. The Fox Rose Hill Garden in Falmouth, Cornwall, has taken a number of my plants in the last few years, and as I drove south I was wondering how they had fared since my last visit. Roads on the 400-mile journey from my home are often heavily congested with traffic and this time was no exception. It took 8 hours! After checking in at a hotel, I set out to look at some of the lovely plants that are grown in this southwest tip of England.

The common garden plants are distinctive: Escallonia hedges with their tiny pink flowers and scented sticky young shoots abound. Myrtus luma trees, with bark the colour of cinnamon sticks, are common, and everywhere New Zealand Cabbage 'Palms' (Cordyline australis) rocket skyward. In this part of the country they grow into multi-branched trees, but these were all killed back to ground level when easterly winds brought temperatures down to -12°C (10°F) in January 1987. Happily they are rarely killed totally, and suckers, which sprang up during the following spring, are now 8' (250cm) tall in some cases. There are many Trachycarpus fortunei in Penzance, including some big specimens, and Chamaerops humilis is also grown, these smaller palms forming attractive rosettes no more than 3' (100cm) high.

Much to my surprise I found that several small Washingtonia palms had been planted out, in Morrab Gardens, although I don't know if they will stay out permanently, or be used as summer bedding plants only. Many other plants had been put in the garden, to replace those killed. They include big specimens of Eucalyptus globulus and Albizzia julibrissin, which looks rather like an Acacia.

It was getting late by the time I had finished my exploration of the Morrab Gardens, so I decided to defer any more plant hunting until the following day.

To my mind, many parts of Cornwall look bleak and windswept, but close to the sea there are sheltered river valleys that screen off the worst of the damaging storms. It is here that we find some of the best sites for growing palms. Falmouth, on the south coast, lies at the estuary of one of these valleys. Official weather figures tell us that this town can expect a low of -4°C (25°F) on its coldest night of the year. The Isles of Scilly, 25 miles (40km) offshore, can expect -0.5°C (31°F) on their coldest night. By contrast Newquay, on the exposed northern coast, may anticipate a chilly -8°C (18°F).

It was to Falmouth that I went on the second day of my visit, to the famous Fox Rose Hill Gardens, where I was delighted to discover an enormous young Jubaea chilensis, about 7' (210cm) tall, growing well, and looking very much at home. Not far away was another impressive palm: a newly planted Phoenix canariensis, about 8' (240cm) tall, just starting a trunk. And of course, those palms we would expect to find: Trachycarpus fortunei and Chamaerops humilis.

After my tour round the garden, I met Simon Miles, the head of the area's Parks Department. He is a great palm enthusiast and is keen to broaden the range of palms that are planted in the Falmouth area. He explained that he is currently re-planning the Fox Rose Hill Gardens to accommodate more palms. The Trachycarpus and Chamaerops and newly planted Jubaea and Phoenix are to be joined in the spring by a large Arecastrum (now Syagrus) romanzoffiana, together with a specimen of Butia capitata.

On the final day of my Cornish trip I went to search for a large specimen of Butia capitata, which, I'd been told, was growing in the garden of an old house in Penzance. I was sceptical because I had never noticed it during previous visits, and I expected to find, at best, a rather battered specimen. Following the directions I had been given, I came to the house, but no sign of the palm. I walked down the drive. There seemed to be no one in. So I asked a builder if he had seen an unusual looking palm tree. Yes, he had, and he directed me to the back of the house. There, to my astonishment, stood the most enormous Butia capitata. It was as tall as the roof of the house and the base of its trunk was a metre wide. I had no idea that Butias grew so big. High among the leaves stood a number of large seed heads. It's a very old tree that must have seen a lot of bad winters, and its presence there today is a tribute to the hardiness of this species, an inspiration to all of us to grow this magnificent palm, and a living memorial to the person who planted it, all those years ago.

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