Phoenix roebelenii

How to defy Nature, and win. Or, 'How To Cook A Pygmy'. By the man with the electric garden.
Peter Tenenbaum, 17 Spaniards End, Hampstead, London NW3
Chamaerops No. 6, published online 23-10-2002

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The Pygmy Date Palm, Phoenix roebelenii, from Laos and the hot steamy jungles of South East Asia looks like an unlikely subject for outdoor cultivation in Britain, but don't be deterred by what you read in the textbooks, this baby is a lot tougher than her delicate appearance might suggest. Although rated Zone 10, she is certainly worth trying in all but the coldest localities. Certainly she is tender, not withstanding temperatures much below -4°C, but if you are prepared to invest the necessary time and effort, and more importantly the financial outlay in providing protection, growing your own Roebelenii is not all that difficult.

My first experience with this highly prized palm began in the spring of 1990 when I planted a four-foot specimen topped with a fabulous head of leaves - absolutely stunning. An unusually hot summer together with regular applications of horse manure (a fitting meal for a princess), washed down with a few gallons of vintage H 0, gave this beautiful palm a great start for what lay ahead.

Come October it was time to think of protection. This took the form of a really thick mulch, bandaging the trunk generously with hessian and a thermostatically controlled heated cable snaking its way around that. Finally two heavy gauge polythene bags over the whole arrangement, securely tied top and bottom, these can be rolled down like a stocking on mild days to give the plant an essential airing, and pulled back up as soon as cold weather threatened.

Everything was just fine and with January out of the way I was already thinking of where to plant my coconuts! Then, like a bolt out of the blue, came the nightmare we palm nuts fear the most: high pressure over Scandinavia, heavy snow driven by a biting easterly wind and night temperatures as low as -12°C. Enough to say goodnight to all my Cordylines (unprotected), defoliate two Phoenix canariensis (limited protection) and eventually kill my so-called 'tough as old boots' Butia capitata, but surprise, surprise, the Roebelenii came through even though 50% leaf damage had robbed her of her former splendour. Never mind, despite the rather late arrival of last summer, much of the damage has been replaced by the emergence of lots of strong and healthy new growth.

This winter I increased the protection with further cabling and yet a third polythene bag, and as if that wasn't enough, a thick blanket to help preserve more of that precious heat. So far, she has withstood two hard freezes - one of which produced a night low of -7°C and not rising by day above 0°C for nearly a week.

If I've managed in these few paragraphs to seduce you into trying this tropical wonder then here are a few pointers to help you succeed in your quest:

Plant in late spring once all danger of frost has passed, a position in full sun to partial shade is most suitable, although protection from the hottest sun is advisable for the first few weeks.

Spend time on preparing the hole, digging it deep and wide. Backfill with fresh soil mixed with well-rotted manure. Feed regularly during the summer and keep well watered in hot weather.

A good dose of sulphate of potash in late summer will help build up your plant's sugar reserves increasing its resistance to freezing.

Make sure a thermostatically controlled plug point is close at hand. Any good qualified electrician can run a supply from your house to a junction box mounted on the garden wall or fence. From there it is relatively easy to run a circuit to a number of waterproof sockets around the garden and power them with a thermostat back at the junction box set to come on once the temperature drops below +4°C. Short of a fuse blowing or a power strike this system works well. Never be tempted to set the temperature too high. It is essential that your plant remains dormant during winter.

Whilst using electricity around the garden it might be worth fitting a circuit breaker, especially with kids around.

Beware in March/April when it is still too cold to dispense with protection; the sun shining through the plastic covering your plant can literally cook it alive. Never allow your heating cable runs to touch one another, this can cause overheating and probably result in damage to the cable, and never allow the cable to come into direct contact with the leaves.

Well there you have it. Not cheap. The essential heating system can be quite expensive depending on how many sockets you install, but on the other hand no serious palm nut should be without it. Owning what must surely be one of the most beautiful palms in the world and to enjoy sitting under its swaying fronds on a hot summer day sipping your favourite cocktail more than justifies all that expense and trouble.

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