And Now, Here's The Weather

Just when winter is fading from memory, a comprehensive reminder of just how bad it was.
Various contributors
Chamaerops No. 2, published online 23-11-2002

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Toughing it out: Trachycarpus learns it's snow joke

Last February s weather hit fast and hit hard. A big anticyclone over Scandinavia and low pressure over the Mediterranean induced a wind flow from east to west, bringing extremely cold air from the steppes of Russia over all of Europe. In many places it was the coldest for 4 years.

The article that follows is a round-up from 15 of our members living around the continent:

First, Philippe Byrne in Exeter, United Kingdom

"In the South West of the U.K. the winter was mild with the exception of 2 cold weeks in February when the temperature fell to -9C on the night of February 9th. Daytime temperatures hovered around freezing for over a week. Snowfall was light but there was a bitter east wind.

"Outside, trachycarpus fortunei was totally unaffected as were Cordyline australis (which were cut to the ground 4 years ago). Chamaerops leaves were somewhat yellowed but my 15 year old plant stood up well to the weather.

"Washingtonia filiferas were protected with a good packing of straw around the trunk. Leaves unprotected by the straw are quite brown and dead, but by mid-March new green growth is already pushing up. My verdict - keep trying."

Eric Speybroeck in North West Belgium

"Our normal winter is similar to that of south east England except that we have more sun, less rain and less snow. This means warmer in the summer (sometimes 5 to 10 days with temperatures around 30/32C), and colder in the winter, that is normally one or two weeks with -7 to -10 (exceptionally, as in '85 and '86 we had -18 to -20).

"This winter the lowest temperature we had was -13 on the 7th and 9th of February, separated by a low of -8 on the 8th. On the other days of the cold snap (from 4th and 19th) the lows ranged between -6 and -8.

"Trachycarpus fortunei came through unharmed of course, and without protection. But even some of the palms that were protected suffered badly: Livistona australis, Phoenix canariensis, and Washingtonia filifera. Others, Brahea armata, Sabal spp., Jubaea, Trithrinax etc. we'll have to wait to see."

Dr Nathan Hindley writes from Portugal:

"I live in the Algarve near Lagos in the South of Portugal, some four hundred metres from the ocean and over the last four years as a hobby I have been growing palms from seed, collected in various parts of the globe.

"The region is characterized by a long dry season from May to October and in between, particularly over the last two winters, frequent storms with occasional high winds and copious rainfall. Minimum winters are usually in the order of 4 to 8C, and when we have high pressure there is a prevailing wind from the north. This winter, although we were saved most of the bad weather experienced by central and northern Europe, we did experience temperatures as low as 2C, which is cold for us. "In general all members of Phoenix do well here, as do Livistonas including L. rigida, which has beautiful red leaves. They suffered not at all in the winter storms. The two Washingtonias are of course very resistant and fast growing, but the fastest growers are undoubtedly the two Archontophoenix species, from Australia."

N. Nash writes from North Wales:

"I've been experimenting with Phoenix canariensis to see how hardy it is. Some years ago I bought two in a pot, one bigger than the other. I separated them, re-potted the larger one, and planted the other directly into the ground in the garden.

"That was five years ago, and it's thriving, even though this February we've had cold, hard frosts every night for about two weeks, and hardly getting above freezing by day. One night it dropped down to -8, the following day it didn't get above -6 and that night it went down to -10. By this time I was feeling a bit sorry for the Phoenix, so I went out and threw an old blanket over it. I don't think it did much to keep the frost out, but it made me feel a lot better!

"All that cold frosty weather seems to have done it no harm whatsoever, so I think that Phoenix canariensis could be hardy in many parts of the country, especially here, as we don't often get really bad winters in this part of N. Wales.

"By the way, it's outgrown its big brother which is in a 40cm tub (brought inside during the winter). The one in the ground is 120cm high, and the one in the tub 90cm."

Gaetano Infantino writes from Rome, Italy:

"Snowfalls in Genoa, Savona, and even in San Remo! I saw the famous palms of the Casino gracefully covered by frothy snow, which appeared such a contrast with the dark, slender trunks of many palms, especially Washingtonia, Brahea and Arecastrum. However, they seemed not to suffer at all.

"Actually, temperatures weren't so low as in 1985, and the sun melted the ice before it could do much damage. However Milan had two serious snowfalls, one in early November and one in late January, when the dropped to -13. Here in Rome we only had to put up with -4, so no damage to report to the many palms which adorn gardens and squares, especially Phoenix, Washingtonia, Butia, and Chamaerops.

"I'm just waiting now for another beautiful summer to see how many of the palms in my own collection (in Nettuno, near Rome) will flower and set fruit. But I have good reason to be optimistic, thanks to the lack of serious cold. I think we were let off lightly"

From Sweden, Kjell Persson:

"I live in south Sweden, between Gothenburg and Botas, 148m altitude. Normal winters here are not very cold by Swedish standards; usually the minimum is around -20C, and in Gothenburg itself, perhaps a little milder, say, -15 or -16. In 1987 the lowest was -28C. Normally the snow cover is between 10 and 40cm and this occurs between November and March.

"This winter was in fact rather mild, although February was about average. The lowest in January was -9C; February had 16 with many days of frost but little snow, only 5-10cm.

"I grow all my palms in pots and containers. I have had one Chamaerops outside in a pot in the ground from February 18th 1990 until January 20th 1991 with little protection. It's had no damage despite frost day and night for many days. This has encouraged me to try Trachycarpus in the ground this year also. But I would hate to lose it as they are very difficult to come by in Sweden."

From Madrid, Spain, Santiago Pajaron writes:

"The weather in Spain has been colder than in other years, especially during February. There have been some very cold years with very low temperatures, down to -20C in some places. This year was not as bad as all that, but the cold did reach the whole country. And those low temperatures were accompanied by a fair amount of snow even in places like Malaga, the 'Costa del Sol' and the mountains near Seville, which is very rare. We even saw 'Palmitos' (Chamaerops humilis) covered with snow, an unusual and bizarre sight."

Donald Hare, from Dublin, Ireland:

"Here in Ireland we were spared the worst of the dreadful weather the rest of the British Isles had in February. Although around 10cm (4") of snow fell in Dublin between the 7th and 9th of February, this had melted by the 12th. Air temperature on a couple of nights fell to between -9 inland and -4 on the coast with day time temperatures for the same period ranging between 0 and +4.

"Our normal temperature on the coldest winter nights varies between +2 and -4 on the coast and -6 to -8 inland with daytime temperatures of +2 to +7.

"No damage has ever occurred on Trachycarpus fortunei, and when Chamaerops humilis is grown near the coast, and given adequate shelter from the easterly winds along with good drainage, it seems reasonably hardy. Phoenix canariensis grows in a few very sheltered South and South-west gardens, but suffers severe windburn in winters like 1987 which was the worst this century for that area, -7.2C being recorded."

From the Cote d'Azur, France, Alain Moinié reports:

"The French Riviera is really a series of micro-climates, so the cold weather had a different effect in different places, but certainly no palm trees were lost during February s cold.

"In Hyeres, in very protected places, the temperature dropped no lower than -2, but in more exposed spots, -4 to -5 was recorded. However, the frost melted as soon as the sun rose.

"In Presqu'ile de Giens the minimum seems to have been +5, but in Frejus (80km to the east) on the coast, but less protected, they had -7. So, a bit of a mixture. In Nice and Antibes, they even had snow for a day."

From Corsica, Jacques Deleuze:

"Of course, temperatures down here in Corsica are much less damaging than exactly the same temperatures in Northern Europe, and this fact should always be born in mind when making comparisons. Here, the December mean temperature was 3C below average and January's was 1.5 below average. Thus, most of the plants were dormant when the cold snap of February occurred.

"The night temperature on the 7th went down to -1.5 (mildest spot) and to -5 (coldest spot) which is actually about the same as I recorded in '84/85. The rest of the week was warmer with no frost but then the next week we had another cold spell with frost and a weekly mean temperature of 0 in the coldest part of the garden. As a result, the most tender palms: Ptychosperma, Hyophorbe, Neodypsis, Caryota etc., had their leaves burnt. However, all the others showed no damage and are already growing away nicely."

Thomas Baumgartner, from Austria:

"Austria is used to quite cold winters due to its continental, and in higher parts, alpine climate. As an example, the average statistics for the Vienna region (one of the milder areas) tell of about 82 (lays of frost, night lows of -10, and 46 days of snow cover of 30-40cm.

"In common with most of Europe, the last two winters were quite mild, but this year it was unusually cold with lows down to -17 in Vienna during February. Fortunately this cold period did not last long, and conditions soon normalized.

"As you can imagine, this is not the ideal climate for growing palms out of doors, and the few attempts that have been made have been unsuccessful. In this country, we palm enthusiasts have to content ourselves with potted specimens kept outside during the warmer months, and brought in during the winter"

From Hampstead, North London, Peter Tenenbaum:

"The big February freeze with well, over a week of sub-zero temperatures and a night minimum of -12, (and this in the warmest part of the garden), took its toll despite efforts to protect the more tender subjects.

"All my Cordylines were decapitated; Rhapis, and one of my small Livistona chinensis were killed outright, the other survived with just a little leaf burn. A 3m Phoenix canariensis that had been bandaged with a thick layer of hessian was defoliated but is now showing strong signs of new growth. My smaller one survived with just some leaf burn, with the aid of a heating cable. Phoenix roebelenii, protected in a similar fashion, was partly defoliated, but is now recovering well. Not surprisingly, Trachycarpus, Chamaerops, Sabal minor and Butia capitata were all unscathed.

"It is now the end of March and I have replaced all the plants lost, adding a multiple planting of Trachycarpus, and to show I am not a defeatist, I have even planted a beautiful specimen of Chrysalidocarpus which will be protected with a heated shelter next winter. I am also planning to put out an Arecastrum. Never say die, that's my motto. I should add that as Hampstead is 200m above sea level, winters are considerably colder than in central London, just a few miles to the south."

Wilko Karmelk from Holland:

"The cold spell of February has brought quite low temperatures though were no extreme lows. The absolute minimum in our country was -15C. In my region, (the south-west), -12/13C was recorded. The cold damaged some of the leaves of young Trachycarpus, and Cordyline australis was hit badly.

"The Jubaeas and Phoenix sylvestris in my poly-tunnel experienced -10.5C and didn't show any damage, whilst a Phoenix dactylifera was totally browned by this temperature. There were other plants that came through quite well: Fatsia japonica, Fatshedera lizei, and many species of Yucca and Cacti were unscathed with no protection."

From Switzerland, Manfred Walder sends this report:

"Verscio in the Centovalli, near the Lago Maggiore, southern Switzerland, has experienced another long and unusually cold winter in 90/91.

"Normally winters are mild, each with only about 20 slight night-frosts, but this one brought many nights below zero, a few days with heavy snowfall, and one night in February with a minimum temperature of -9C here. This night, most of my palms were covered with blankets. Many took no damage: Arenga engleri, Butia, Chamaerops, Sabal, Jubaea and Trachycarpus of course. Others, such as Brahea armata, Chamaedorea microspadix, C. radicalis, Livistona chinensis and Phoenix canariensis were a bit burned. Only Livistona australis and Washingtonia suffered more severe damage, but survived even so."

And finally, from Germany, Jürgen Eisel:

"Here in Rengsdorf, (Westerwald) at 270m in the mild Rhine Valley, winters are not usually extremely cold, but winter 90/91 hit Germany, especially the northern half, much more severely than usual.

"It started out normally here, until January 13th when biting easterly winds brought clear skies and heavy frosts down to -9 to -14C, and at ground level, -13 to -18, on several nights. The ground froze to a depth of 65cm.

"The cold weather lasted through February but by the beginning of March it had warmed up considerably. All my palms were well protected in the coldest weather and so far, there seems to be no damage. However, other plants suffered more severely."

* * *

Well, there you have it: Winter 1990/91 as seen by 15 palm enthusiasts around the continent. A big thankyou to all contributors to this article, and to Patrick Gladden who supplied the weather map and meteorological details.

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