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A Trunky Trachy

Down in Dover grows an extraordinary Trachycarpus fortunei. Here's its life story.
Dave Brown, Palm View, 8 Via Romana, Chalk, Gravesend, Kent DA12 4UL
Chamaerops No. 14, published online 23-08-2002

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Thick trunked Trachycarpus growing in Dover

At the age of fourteen I had no interest in plants or gardening at all, although I had spent a great deal of time helping my grandfather tend his garden when I was much younger. Then I went abroad for the first time, on a family trip to Majorca in the Mediterranean. Most people think of Majorca as a hot place. But our trip began on the 17th of December, and although it was not as cold there as here, it certainly was not hot. While I was there I became enchanted by the flora, palms in particular, and seeing them growing in far from - tropical conditions, I vowed to myself that I would grow palm trees at home in England.

On my return home, I was frequently told, "Don't be silly, palm trees don't grow in England". I would not believe it, and continued to search for a palm that would survive at home in Kent. In 1976, some six years later, I discovered that Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chusan Palm, stood a good chance of surviving in south-east England, and finally, in 1978, I located young Trachycarpus fortunei palms at Ruxley Manor Garden Centre, in Sidcup.

The palms were about two years old, and labelled "Half Hardy Trees". I spent quite some time sorting through the palms, and eventually one of the shorter, more stocky ones was chosen. Although the palm was much smaller in height than many of the others, it gave me the impression of being much tougher. As all the documentation I had said that Trachycarpus was only half-hardy, I treated it as such. It spent the summer on the patio and all other times indoors, and knowing what I know now about Trachys, it must have been quite unhappy in the conditions that I gave it.

By the time I moved to my present address, in June 1984, I had decided to give it a go in the open ground, and planted the now 18 inch high Trachycarpus in the back garden. Still believing it was not quite hardy, I positioned it in the warmest, sunniest and most sheltered spot that I could find. The fact that the poor little Trachy was about eight years old and was still only I 8 inches high shows how badly I had unwittingly treated it during its early years.

The summer of 1984 was quite warm, with temperatures above average, but the late autumn was well below average, and although the following winter did not have dramatically low temperatures, the lowest being about 60C, the average was much colder than normal, with snow lying most of the time.

We experienced some quite strong easterly gales, which forced me to protect the young palm. This I did by building a little semicircular, dry brick wall to its eastern side. I had seen this method used in Lanzarote to help plants survive the desiccating winds there. The spring of 1985 was not much better than the winter had been, with snow and ice mounds lying until early May. By that time I had lost all the newly planted exotics except the Trachycarpus.

The little palm grew well, in spite of the lack of a summer in 1985, its growth being helped along with plenty of rain, and generous feeds of Phostrogen. By January 1987, it had reached 4 feet in height, before being completely flattened by 20 inches of snow. I thought it was over for my little Trachy, but when the thaw came, the leaves slowly rose back up to their normal position. Two weeks later, it looked as though nothing had happened. By then I was beginning to believe what we all know now, that an established Trachycarpus fortunei is completely hardy in lowland Britain.

Since that time it has rocketed skyward at an astonishing rate, and now stands at over 10 feet. The rapid rate of growth, from I .5 to 10.5 feet (including 8 feet of trunk) in 10 years, is possibly partly due to the Mediterranean weather in 1989-90, with scorching summers, mild springs and autumns, and very mild, wet winters.

While we are on the subject of the weather, the drought which occurred during that period, in my part of North-west Kent anyway, was not caused by lack of rainfall, but a shift in the rainfall pattern. My records show that from 1988 to 1992, we had slightly more than the average rainfall in each year. The problem was, that just under 70% of it fell in the winter months, and virtually nothing fell in the months with the highest evaporation and use rate.

Those years brought a permanent hosepipe ban. I remember lugging watering cans about until well after dark, every day of the week, during the summers of 1989 and 1990. I developed a rota, in which every non-drought resistant shrub was watered every third day. In 1989, my bedding plants were abandoned after three weeks in the ground, and were history by the beginning of June, but the thirsty Trachycarpus received its ration of 20 gallons of water per week, and a foliar feed of Phostrogen at weekends.

I nearly lost it in April 1990. It must have happened quite slowly because I didn't immediately notice the problem, but the palm had wilted quite badly. When I look at the picture taken at that time, and compare it with others, it is quite apparent that the palm was in some distress. It recovered well though and continued to grow ever skyward, but it wasn't just the height that was unusual, but also the thickness of the trunk. The base was 16 inches in diameter and it was I 2 inches at 5 feet above the ground.

In April last year (1993), I decided to de-fibre the trunk. I was a little nervous about this, fearing that it would reduce the hardiness of the palm, but decided I must do it anyway. It took more than eight hours to remove the fibre from 5 feet of trunk, and I couldn't move a muscle the next day, but it was well worth it. The Trachycarpus was totally transformed, it looked far more tropical somehow, with a stout ringed trunk, and what looked like a swollen, fibrous, brown crown shaft at the top. The dimensions of the bare trunk are, 13 inches at the base and 9 inches at 5 feet. I have since found, I'm glad to say, that fibre-stripping makes no difference to the hardiness of the palm in lowland Britain, so I would recommend it to anyone who would like to spice up their Trachycarpus.

Now that the trunk has been exposed, it shows just how close together the leaf rings are, virtually one on top of another. As I said earlier, it is planted in the warmest, sunniest, most sheltered part of the garden, so I thought that heat accounted for it's speed of growth. Temperatures of 25°C are common on sunny days in March in the shade of the Trachy, and the high 30°C's are not uncommon in June. My theory doesn't look like it will hold water now though, because I have been advised that high temperatures normally result in the rings being quite spaced out on the trunk, and that the speed of growth in my case may be due to an abnormally large number of leaves being produced per year. I haven't monitored the number of leaves, but I shall from now on.

Perhaps the speed of growth is due to feeding. It is planted in very well drained loamy, clay about 7 feet deep, above chalk. It naturally tends to be a poor soil, due to good drainage, and was a sheep pasture before the properties were built; so many plants need additives such as multi-tonic to keep them green and healthy. The pH of the soil ranges from 6.0 to 6.5 at the surface, but rises to 7.0 at five feet below ground level.

I mulch the palm every spring, with a mixture of composted bark and garden compost, with a sprinkling of Growmore, and from then on it gets double strength phostrogen, with a teaspoon of lawn feed (without the weed killer) per two gallons. This feed formula is applied with every watering during the spring, but the lawn feed is omitted after flowering has finished (early June). Also, following my near miss in April 1990, it is never allowed to dry out.

This year I hope to find what sex the Trachycarpus is, and then to see if I can produce my own seed. I have other smaller Trachys so hopefully I will have both sexes amongst them. If provenance does play a part in the hardiness of palms, and I believe that it does, then palms produced from British grown seed, should have a high percentage of very hardy offspring, some perhaps even more hardy than the parents. Palm breeding is a very slow process, with Trachycarpus fortunei palms being about 10 years old before flowering, but somebody has to start at sometime, so why not us, and why not now?

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