Pachypodium lameri

When is a palm not a palm and a cactus not a cactus? Answer: When it's a Madagascan Cactus Palm of course!
Tony King, 34 Keats Avenue, Romford, Essex, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 5, published online 23-10-2002

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Pachypodium lameri - Mature plant in Frankfurt Palmengarten.

A descriptive common name but very misleading, since the subject of this article is neither palm nor cactus. Pachypodium lameri, now a commonly encountered species, was until only a few years ago a rarity seen in specialist collections of enthusiasts. It belongs to the family of plants that includes the succulent Adeniums, and the more familiar Oleander. There are many species of Pachypodium occurring in arid areas of Africa and Madagascar, that super island that is home to so many interesting plants. P. lameri originates from the South and South west of Madagascar in seasonally dry habitats over a wide variety of soil types. It is thus an adaptable species ideally suited to modern, centrally heated homes with their hot, dry atmosphere.

Seed is readily available and germinates rapidly given bottom heat. Subsequent development is fast and it has been recorded that under optimum conditions of warmth, moisture and feeding a 1-1.5m plant with a girth of some 10-15cm can be grown in only 5 years. A plant such as this is ready to flower. The body of the plant itself is very succulent, widest at about 1/4 of the way up the stem, which is protected by numerous tubercles each sporting 3 stout spines. Topping this trunk is the crown of leaves. Each consists of a petiole some 4cm long, which continues to form the midrib giving an overall leaf length of 2535cm with a width of 25mm, the tips and margins frequently curving downwards. They are shiny olive-green in colour and rather thick to the touch. Some varieties however bear much shorter, 'fatter' leaves some 11cm wide. It is a somewhat variable species and even variegated and cristate forms (where growth of stem is made sideways to form many convoluted folds) are known in cultivation.

In their habitat, plants can reach heights of 8m with a girth of some 60cm and even in cultivation plants will eventually reach a considerable height.

Flowers are produced terminally on mature plants and are borne on stout peduncles. They are pure white in colour with a yellow throat, rather waxy and very attractive. Again, two flower types appear to exist, one sweetly scented, the other scentless. If pollinated a two pronged seed pod is formed, which on maturity splits to release the small seeds each of which carries a tuft of white hairs to aid dispersal. After flowering the stem often branches so that by repeated flowering and branching, a crown of stubby branchlets is formed.

Given warm bright conditions year round plants will continue to grow and remain evergreen. It is more usual though to overwinter plants at lower temperatures, mm 10c, keeping them dry whereupon they become deciduous. Growth and thus new flushes of leaves are encouraged with normal watering and increased warmth in the spring. During active growth, much water and regular feeding will be required to keep the plants at their best. High potash, low nitrogen feeds are best, such as those sold for growing tomatoes. A gritty compost to allow good drainage and an annual re-potting will also promote rapid development.

I have seen P. lameri planted outdoors, for example, at the Jardin Exotique in Monaco and for those living in such favoured locations it would be worth trying an inexpensive young plant outdoors. Indeed, although 10c is considered a safe winter minimum, my plants have in a dormant state survived drops down to 5c.

All in all Madagascan cactus palms are an attractive, eye-catching, easy and very desirable addition to our exotic collections, and will appeal to all those with an eye for the unusual.

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