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
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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