Phoenix theophrastii

We all know the European Fan Palm, but here 'san opportunity to get to know the other European native, the European Feather Palm as you might call it.
Nicholas Turland, South London Botanical Institute, 323 Norland Road, London 51124 9AQ, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 11, published online 23-09-2002

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Phoenix theophrastii - the Cretan Date Palm - at home. Thesephotographs illustrate the differences between the inflorescenses on male (right) and female (left) trees.

As early as the fourth century BC, the classical Greek botanist Theophrastus wrote of palm trees growing on the South Aegean island of Crete. By the twentieth century, it was assumed that the Cretan 'wild' palms were naturalized populations of the date palm Phoenix dactylifera L. However, in 1967 they were recognized as truly native plants, belonging to a distinct and presumably endemic new species, by the Swiss botanist Dr Werner Greuter, who befittingly named them Phoenix theophrastii (see the journal Bauhinia vol. 3, p. 243). This brought the number of European native palms to two, the other species being Chamaerops humilis, from the western and central Mediterranean.

Both the Cretan palm and the date palm produce suckers from the base of the trunk and have a similar clumping habit, but a closer look will quickly reveal the main distinguishing features. The absolute maximum height of the Cretan palm is about 15 m, compared with the date palm's 30 m; the Cretan palm's leaves are smaller, with shorter, stiffer leaflets ending in a very sharp point, which can easily draw blood if touched carelessly. Furthermore, the inflorescences and fruiting clusters of the Cretan palm are smaller, as are the individual fruits (c 15 x 10 mm) and the seeds contained within (c. 13 x 8 mm).

Phoenix theophrastii has attractive glaucous leaves, which become yellowish in old age and finally brown when dead, in which state they persist for a few years, losing their leaflets so that only the rachis remains. Eventually, this too decays and falls off. In an undisturbed natural state, a Cretan palm presents an impenetrable thicket of spiny living fronds, with dead fronds below and a thick growth of suckers rising from the base. All of these combine to obscure the trunk from view. Trees with a clearly visible trunk, covered with leaf scars, are likely to have been trimmed by man, or burnt at some time. In fact, Phoenix theophrastiis amazingly fire-proof: the trunks can be charred black by fire and all the fronds ruined, but new growth will sprout afresh from each growing point.

Phoenix theophrastii has been recorded from at least ten localities around the coast of Crete, and is now known also from southwestern Turkey, where it was first recorded in 1983. The largest population in Crete is the locus classicus at Vai, at the far eastern end of the island (the word vai is Greek for palm). Here, hundreds of the trees form a wonderfully tropical-looking grove on a flat, moist valley floor running towards the sea. The sandy beach at the mouth of the valley is backed by palms and is a real beauty spot, much frequented by sunbathers who no doubt imagine they are in the Caribbean or somewhere similar.

The next largest populations are in western Crete. One is centred on a limestone gorge east of the Preveli monastery, on the southern coast opposite the town of Rethimno. The river in the bottom of the gorge is lined with palms, while a few more individuals are scattered further upstream by the main river and in the dry bed of one of its tributaries. The gorge suffers from excessive human pressure, with people camping beneath the palms and trampling the ground, thereby preventing the establishment of seedlings. As if this were not bad enough, some misguided person has planted eucalypt saplings!

The other large population lies a little further westward along the coast, extending up the Finikias stream valley from Souda beach, 3 km west of the seaside resort of Plakias. (Note that the name of the valley derives from Phoenix, which is Greek for palm tree.) Most of the palms occur along the watercourses, and several fine trees form a small grove below a hillside spring; they appear to be under no immediate threat, being comparatively inaccessible and not occupying land required for building or agriculture. However, a few palms along the rocky coast immediately east of Souda beach do appear to be in danger. A number of tourist accommodations have been built here recently, and each year a little more earth and rubble is bulldozed onto the trees. Tamarisk saplings have been planted next to the palms, and it would seem that the hoteliers consider a coast lined with alien tamarisks more aesthetically pleasing than one lined with native palms. The irony is that one of these accommodations is called the Phoenix hotel! The palms are legally protected as a vulnerable species under the Berne Convention, although the local Cretans are probably unaware of this. However, on Souda beach itself, the local Cretans have shown a more enlightened approach to their special trees: the owners of one of the tavernas avoided the particularly fine palms there while bulldozing their terrace, and have now hung light bulbs in the trees and put chairs and tables under the shade of their crowns. They have even planted a few young palms on the terrace; a nice thought, but unfortunately these are Phoenix canariensis!

An important habitat requirement of the Cretan palm is the availability of permanent groundwater. Where the plants are not actually growing by streams or springs, their roots will have reached down to subterranean water. This is how they manage to survive in the seemingly inhospitable conditions of sandy beaches, coastal rocks, cliffs and open rocky ground. A comparatively warm growing environment is also necessary, restricting the palm to coastal areas at low altitude (up to 230m in Crete).

In Turkey, Phoenix theophrastii is known from the central part of the Datça or Marmaris Peninsula, north of the island of Rhodes. Most of the palms are concentrated around Cape Dil, which is about halfway between Datça and Marmaris, south of the main road between these two towns. The other Turkish locality lies over 200 km further east, on the eastern side of Fiike bay, some 75 km south by southwest of Antalya (again, note the etymology).

Palms resembling Phoenix theophrastii have been observed on the East Aegean islands of Kalimnos, Nisiros and Simi. Populations on these islands would certainly fit in with the distribution of the species, filling in part of the gap between Crete and Turkey. However, their identity requires confirmation, since they might prove to be P dactylifera, which is occasionally planted for ornament in the Aegean region. The latter species can be mistaken for the Cretan palm if not examined closely, especially if the suckers and dead leaves are allowed to persist naturally, thereby giving the impression of a wild, rather than cultivated, plant. I know of two such date palms growing on stream-banks on the island of Karpathos, between Crete and Rhodes; they look natural, and the habitat suggests a natural occurrence, but the leaves are too large and soft for P. theophrastii Incidentally, one of these palms is near a village called Finiki.

Phoenix theophrastii flowers mainly in May, at least in Crete. Male and female flowers are borne on separate trees. The male inflorescences are roughly half the size of the females (their only function is to produce pollen, whereas the females need to bear copious quantities of fruit). Cretan palm pollen is produced in vast quantities and is blown by the wind onto the female flowers. It stinks appallingly, rather like overworn, underwashed socks! After pollination, the fruits develop and eventually reach maturity the following spring. The immature fruits are a conspicuous bright orange colour, with a hard texture and an unpleasantly astringent taste. Ripe fruits are dark brown, sometimes tinted purplish, with a thin layer of soft sweet flesh, which tastes, unsurprisingly, just like a fresh date. They are quite safe to eat and make a delicious free snack, although, curiously, the local Cretans seem unaware of this. (These are the same local Cretans who gather and eat all manner of wild plants as salad vegetables.)

Finally, a few notes on cultivation seem appropriate. Phoenix theophrastii seeds germinate readily and, after a few years, the seedlings will begin to produce pinnate leaves. A plant I grew from seed sown in 1984 unfortunately died when I risked leaving it in an unheated greenhouse for the winter. Two or three days with the temperature only a few degrees below zero killed it. The surviving plant, from the same sowing, is now firmly lodged in a frost-free glasshouse.

Plants exist in various botanic gardens, and one in the Temperate House at Kew is now over twenty years old. It has formed a large suckering crown, with leaves about 2 m long, but is not yet old enough to have a proper trunk. The fronds look very soft and green compared with those of wild plants, probably because of the rather shady growing conditions. This palm receives the full blast of the Aegean sun in Crete, so in a more northerly climate it needs the brightest position available. P. theophrastii is also rarely cultivated in its native Crete: there are, for example, some fine mature plants on the seafront in Sitia, in the north-east of the island. Much more common is the quicker growing Canary Island palm P. canariensis, which is undoubtedly attractive, and far less painful, should you happen to blunder into it on a dark night!

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