Tour de Fous

Steve's report of the Fous de Palmiers' trip to the wonderful gardens of Lisbon, Portugal's capital.
Steve Swinscoe, Manatte, Le Houga, 32460, France
Chamaerops No. 13, published online 23-08-2002

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Lisbon palms in three views:
Above left: Jardim Botanico.
Above right: Archontophoenix cuninghanmiana
Below: In the Estufa Fria, where laths take the place of glass. Spot your own palms.

Accompanying the last issue of Chamaerops was a last-minute invitation to join interested members of the French association, Fous de Palmiers, on a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, to admire the palms there. It was the first time the association had proposed to its members (and, at the same time, to EPS members as well!) a trip outside its borders, including travel and hotel accommodation.

Well, we did it and here's a rundown of the splendours of the capital of Portugal and its suburbs. I should add that if this trip came to pass it was in part due to an article I read in the July 1991 issue of Chamaerops. "Palms in Portugal" by Martin Salisbury. His glowing account of the many palms he saw there inspired me to take a look for myself during a subsequent trip to Portugal the following autumn. After my visit to the Faculty of Sciences Botanical Garden I corresponded with a Portuguese member of IPS, Felipe Nobre Guedes, and it was our correspondence back and forth that finally led to plans to organize a trip to Lisbon.

French members travelled from Paris and met up with EPS members in Lisbon. Actually we lost one member upon arrival at the Lisbon airport and EPS members, who drove up from the Algarve, the south coast of Portugal, to join us, almost didn't make it. Their car broke down just outside of Lisbon and they ended up taking a taxi to the hotel and then to catch up with us for the first garden visit on Friday, October 1st. After lunch at a sidewalk cafe next to the Tagus River recommended by our host Felipe, we headed over to the Jardim d'Ultramar nearby.

Portugal was at one time a leading maritime nation and this garden, near the river where the ships docked, was started when plants collected from the four corners of the world were brought here by returning ships.

On entering the garden we were drawn towards an avenue of tall Washingtonia filifera, most of them with their characteristic "petticoats" intact. This garden also boasts winding avenues of both Phoenix canariensis and Syagrus romanzoffiana, the latter hailing from Portugal's onetime colony, Brazil. There were fine specimen plantings of several species of Brahea, Sabal and Butia and a noble Jubaea chilensis. As an aside the first Jubaea to have flowered and borne fruit in Europe, way back in 1885, grew in a garden of the Necessidades palace in Lisbon but, alas, is no more. Felipe learned that this venerable palm had been cut down, and I fear that they didn't even bother to harvest its precious sap to boil it down to make "miel de palma". In any event we remained in this garden until closing time and this happened frequently during our Lisbon adventure! Leaving the Jardim d'Ultramar we crossed the street and admired tall, fruiting Howea forsteriana, one of several species rarely found elsewhere in Europe but flourishing in Lisbon. They were growing just outside the walls of the palace of Jeronimos. We all piled into the minibus and headed for the tower of Belem, postcard pretty, sitting in the waters of the Tagus, framed by Phoenix reclinata growing in a garden by the river's edge. Here we also noted the differences between Phoenix canariensis and Phoenix sylvestris, growing side by side and the sylvestris was laden with fruit stalks of bright red seeds. A couple of us couldn't resist the temptation to harvest some and naturally it was just high enough to make the harvest tricky business, but then palm nuts are not easily discouraged, n 'est-ce pas? Darkness sent us back to our hotel with plans to get an early start the following day.

At 9:00 Saturday morning our host Felipe was right on time, as always, and he had made special arrangements for us to visit the Faculty of Sciences botanical garden, where we were met by his friend, botanist Alexandra da Silva e Costa Escuderio, who works in the botanical garden and is a member, like Felipe, of the Liga dos Amigos do Jardim Botanico. Alexandra delighted us with her enthusiasm and knowledge as we strolled through the garden, founded in 1840. Here we admired the tallest Washingtonia robusta in all Lisbon, measuring almost 19 m. 5 years ago and growing strong. Most of the palms are found in the lower part of the garden, reached by a double stairway of beautiful Portuguese stone mosaic, framed by lush Howeas.

This garden has the largest collection of palms of all Lisbon, 35 species at last count. One highlight was a Trithrinax acanthocoma and there were some unidentified Sabals as well as some tall, slender trunked Phoenix that none of us could put a definite name to. In this garden we admired for the first time healthy Rhopalostylis sapida and baueri, possibly the only adult specimens growing outdoors in Europe. Lisbon enjoys a Mediterranean climate with high relative humidity, even during the dry summer months. The average low temperature in winter is 6.42 C (lowest recorded temperature is 0.42 C) while the average high is 31.3°C. Average annual rainfall is 750 mm. All this seems to suit the palms of the Botanical Garden perfectly. After saying goodbye to Alexandra we walked to the old part of the city where Felipe recommended a fine restaurant where we all enjoyed a gourmet meal of Portuguese specialities. After lunch we admired the panorama of the city before heading to the next garden, the Estufa Fria, or cold greenhouse.

The Estufa Fria was created in an old stone quarry, in part of the Edward VII park. It is unique in that the protection is provided by wooden laths without any glass. The climate is mild enough that this is sufficient and the lush vegetation attests to the efficiency of this method. The most common palms here were Howea forsteriana and also Rhopalostylis sapida. Both species appeared to be right at home here, so much so that several palms already pushed their crowns right up into the roof of wooden laths. The jungle effect was complete with winding paths and tranquil pools.

Our last stop of the day was to the garden of Monteiro Mor, on the outskirts of the city. Here we lamented the passing of another specimen of Jubaea. It turns out that when they expanded the restaurant in this garden last year the machines doing the excavation for the foundations were over zealous and cut so many roots of the 18m, century-old Jubaea that it subsequently died. We regretted that the Portuguese didn't do like the Swiss in Locarno (as reported by Andy Peter in Chamaerops. July 1992) and dig up and move this Jubaea rather than sacrifice it.

Our last day in Lisbon, Sunday October 3rd, was the most beautiful: blue skies, sunshine and warm temperatures. Felipe came to fetch us at 9:00 and we set off to Sintra, described by Lord Byron as "glorious Eden". With our minibus we followed the coastline where the Tagus empties into the Atlantic and then climbed the coastal mountains, overlooking the ocean, admiring the Cabo de Roca, the westerm-most point of continental Europe. On our way we spotted 2 magnificent Jubaeas in a private garden and we decided to try and get a closer look. After going around in circles we located the property, hidden behind a tall gate with interphone. Felipe spoke to the owner, a German baron, explaining who we were and that we hoped to take a look around, but, despite Felipe's persuasive powers, the baron was in no mood to show his garden to a bunch of palm nuts on a Sunday morning. After a simple lunch in a sidewalk cafe we headed to the Quinta de Montserrate. The garden surrounds a sort of Arab-Gothic palace, built in the last century by a wealthy Englishman, and was teeming with marvels. Here we admired the first Archontophoenix cunninghamiana we were to see as well as Howea belmoreana, palms to be found nowhere else outdoors in Europe. Here, too, were more Rhopalostylis sapida and baueri Altogether there are more than 25 species of palms here, not to mention the fabulous collection of other plants, including cycads, tree ferns and many species of Araucaria. As we were getting ready for a final group photo a guardian came along to chase us out. The garden had closed one hour earlier but we were too enthralled with all there was to see to notice. Felipe found words to humour the guardian as he escorted us to the exit.

Before leaving Sintra to return to Lisbon we had a final gourmet meal together in a local restaurant. Felipe accompanied us back to our hotel and, after expressing our many thanks, we said goodbye, encouraging him to come and see us in France. We decided that one thing we could do to repay him for his hospitality was to make him an honorary member of Fous de Palmiers. The General Assembly of the association later voted unanimously in favour of the idea.

On Monday morning we said goodbye to our EPS friends and flew back to Paris via Porto. And in Paris we said goodbye to each other, with promises to stay in touch and plan other trips in the future. The general consensus was that the Fous de Palmiers' trip to Lisbon was an enormous success, the first of many other adventures to follow. Do plan to join us the next time around!

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