A Tale of 2 Climates

The two climates in question are those either side of Canada's Rocky Mountains. What a difference a range makes!
Nick Parker, 11692, 89A Avenue, North Delta, BC, V4C 7J6, Canada
Chamaerops No. 15, published online 23-08-2002

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Above: Vancouver’s tallest palm, a very handsome Trachycarpus fortunei
Below: Vancouver: winter street scene, Trachycarpus fronds weighted down with snow

Canada is one of the coldest countries in the world; just ask any unsuspecting European arriving by plane in the middle of the winter. And this past winter was particularly bad. Temperatures of -20 to -30°C were the norm as Torontonians shivered through the coldest January in 20 years. Montreal was even worse with howling winds and temperatures below -309C. Out west on the prairies, Edmonton and Winnipeg were colder still with blizzard conditions and several weeks of temperatures approaching -40°C.

And yet, if you were to continue westward over the Rocky Mountains and across British Columbia to the west coast, you'd enter a whole new world. In Vancouver this past January people were playing golf and jogging around Stanley Park in their summer shorts. In Victoria on Vancouver Island, residents smugly mow their grass and count spring flowers in February just to irritate the rest of the country. And if you looked carefully around this part of Canada, you might even spot a few palm trees.

In a country known for its long harsh winters, Canadians on the west coast take great pride in this climatic dichotomy. Moderated by the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver and Victoria, in the extreme southwest corner of Canada have a climate more like Britain's. Overnight frost in winter is not unusual nor is the occasional snowfall.

The only palm species considered reliably hardy is Trachycarpus fortunei. They can be found throughout coastal areas from Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island at 48 30'N latitude to about 50. There are hundreds about, mostly in private gardens, the earliest of which were planted in the 1960's. The tallest are now 25-30 feet in height. Recently, the Vancouver Parks Dept. has experimented with public plantings. The experiment has been so successful, the local Palm Society sees the planting of palms as boulevard trees as a realistic, long-term goal. Other recently introduced exotic plants include Musa basjoo banana trees, which this winter have created an unexpected problem as plants continued to grow inside their winter coverings, in some cases bursting through plastic bags and other protective coverings. The Tasmanian tree fern Dicksonia antarctica is also a recent arrival that has proven to be hardy and quite popular. Kiwifruit (vines) do quite well here too; there is actually a commercial Kiwifruit farm on Vancouver Island producing several hundred tons of fruit each year, the most northerly kiwifruit farm in the world. Mature trees require no winter protection. A few eucalyptus trees are found in the warmest areas near salt water. E. niphoplia (snow gum), E. globulus (blue gum), and F. gunnii have all been spotted in British Columbia.

The European fan palm Chamaerops humilis has not been as successful here as it has in Devon and Cornwall and other parts of Britain, but there are a few protected juvenile specimens that manage to survive winter if they are kept dry. Cordyline australis is another 'subtropical' plant that has not been successful in B.C. despite many attempts by a growing number of palm enthusiasts.

The Pacific Northwest Palm & Exotic Plant Society is a small, enthusiastic group of palmophiles from Oregon and Washington in the US as well as British Columbia. They continue to grow palms and experiment with other hardy palm species. The English and European love of gardening and gardens lives on in the 'new world' where so many transplanted Britons and other Europeans now reside.

Fifty foot Monkey puzzle trees, and Magnolia trees blooming in March probably don't seem that exotic to most Europeans, but to Canadians moving west from Ontario or the prairie provinces, it must seem like paradise.

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