Starting Out

Beginning from scratch.
Kim & Penny Burton, 3 Dogley Villa Court, Fenay Bridge, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
Chamaerops No. 6, published online 23-10-2002

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Like palms themselves an interest in palms develops from something small and insignificant into something altogether more exciting; at least it has for us. 'Chamaerops' provides a focal point for palm fans - the essence of a Society is its communication medium, without which it would disintegrate. Inevitably (and quite correctly) it is those with experience who pass on their knowledge to others, but beginners can easily be rather overwhelmed by articles from those who 'know' and feel a little intimidated. Perhaps newer (less experienced) members of our society will appreciate an article or two from other beginners; a sharing of delights and disasters - the experts, perhaps, can offer their advice.

Our journey really began some seven or eight years ago when, after growing a few standard Parlour Palms from a local garden centre, we purchased a couple of rather forlorn 'date palms' which had crept into the said garden centre. These runtish things obviously (to us) had some promise of exotica so we nurtured them for a year or two, moving them from place to place in the house according to their response. On reflection they cared little where they were so long as they had sufficient water and light. Occasionally a leaf would wilt or brown - such misdemeanours were punished with instant removal. Time passed slowly (as seems to be the case when watching palms) but we now have two quite splendid exotic and sophisticated examples of Phoenix canariensis graceful leaves to about 2 metres, now much softer than they were (a function of relatively low light and frequent misting?). Magnificent swans from decidedly ugly ducklings as you might say. Re-potting has been annual in proprietary general potting compost and they are now thriving in 12-inch pots - perhaps they will soon develop trunks. Encouraged by the apparent early success with these two, a third Phoenix was found for the office - less success here due, perhaps, to cold nights and water neglect - a spell at home in hospital has, though, effected a marked recovery (message here is don't give up - these plants are not easy to destroy).

During this time a few Kentia palms were acquired for home and work. Like the office Phoenix, those at work fared less than well but hospitalisation resulted in recovery over some months - it would seem that whist they will tolerate considerable neglect without dying, some simple care with water, food and light is required for healthy performance. We have adopted a policy of removing poor and damaged leaves largely for aesthetic reasons, sometimes being quite severe in our pruning. So far as we can tell, this has 'encouraged 'the plants to pull themselves together and produce the desired look.

Our next stop on the palm trail was the purchase of a tattered fan palm from a London garden centre. It was sitting outdoors with a few torn, browned fans on a hairy trunk of some 4-5cm height - straight to hospital with this one. Instant re-potting and a series of operations to remove damaged growth seemed in order, and clearly this poor thing should be indoors! Five years on it is transformed, trunk growth has been modest but its fan leaves are healthy, quite soft and gentle in looks and feel. Only recently have we realised that our palm is Trachycarpus fortunei - it is now outdoors where it belongs. However it will doubtless soon lose its gentle appearance, but with suitable fertilizer and an adequate sized pot it is unlikely to revert to its previous dishevelled state.

At about the same time as obtaining the Trachycarpus, and still being ignorant of palms, we collected some seeds from beneath a variety of palm trees in Mallorca (during February). These were placed in potting compost in the airing cupboard and occasionally watered/ looked at more for fun than with any hope of a result. Surprisingly, about half a dozen of these seeds actually germinated, two survived beyond a few weeks and subsequently grew on a windowsill.

One died aged one year; the other is thriving but has been pitifully slow to develop. This rather pathetic (though healthy) specimen we now know to be Washingtonia filifera - a few months outdoors has produced its best leaf yet.

So, what have we learned from our early experiments? Palms (or at least our 'starter' plants) grow relatively slowly. They can tolerate some abuse but fare much better if given a modicum of care (water when the compost seems dryish, liquid fertilizer once a week during summer, adequate light, new compost annually, frequent misting) and a certain degree of 'customising' to achieve the desired aesthetic effect - it would seem that they quite like this form of guidance in their development!

Overall we have had a few disasters and a lot of enjoyment - as the plants have developed so has our interest. You will have suspected that we have become serious palm fans, but still amateurs with something of a cavalier approach. Over the spring and summer months we have come across such places as the Palm Centre, Architectural Plants and the Palm Farm; what joy - apparently endless varieties of palms, previously unsuspected, are to be had either as seedlings or mature plants. A mad rush of purchasing ensued (surprisingly without undue damage to the bank's fortunes) and a collection is begun. Our desire? To demonstrate that even in the Penines it is possible to grow exotic plants - we have only a patio so all our palms are in pots. This may limit performance but they are readily transportable, which is just as well for some will have to spend the winter (or part of it) indoors - but, which ones, and which will survive outside with a little protection? Come summer we will let you know what we did and what happened in the cold northern wastelands. Below is a list of some of the palms we are experimenting with - perhaps others will be trying the same thing - if so keep a record and let 'Chamaerops' readers know how you get on.

Trachycarpus fortunei (Chusan Palm) Trachycarpus wagnerianus (Miniature Chusan) Chamaerops humilis (European Fan Palm Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island Date Palm) Sabal minor (Blue Palmetto Palm) Ceroxylon quindiuense (Andean Wax Palm) Washingtonia filifera (Cotton Palm) Rhapidophyllum hystrix (Needle Palm) Jubaea chilensis (Chilean Wine Palm) Butia capitata (Jelly Palm) Neodypsis decaryi (Triangle Palm).

We are also playing with some purely indoor varieties, as well as Agaves, Yuccas and Cordylines outdoors - perhaps we can report on our experiences with these another time.

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  28-01-23 - 23:14GMT
 What's New?
 New palm book
 Date: 24-05-2004

An Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms
by Robert Lee Riffle, Paul Craft.
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Chamaerops 48
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 Date: 25-01-2001
'Palmen in Mitteleuropa'
by Mario Stähler
This german book tells you all about how to cultivate your palms in Central Europe. more...