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Question Time

I am a novice to the growing of palms and a newcomer to your publication and have become interested in growing some palms (space permitting) as part of a personal interest in exotic looking plants for indoors and out. I have a handful of questions, which would be of help to me and may be of general interest to some other of your similarly less knowledgeable readership:

1.1 have a few of the more obvious palms (Trachy's, Chamaerops. Phoenix, Washingtonia) which I am growing either outdoors or in a conservatory along with a mixture of various other "exotic" plants. Despite the effect on appearance, I am always reluctant to chop off browning leaves on any of my plants and would rather they dropped naturally. I have a vague notion that as long as the leaves show signs of greenness they will photosynthesise and help the growth rate of the plants. With palms, though, my approach causes problems because of the unsightliness of browning leaves, which stick to the plants for ages. When can the leaves be removed without any detriment to the plant?

2. I have tried some palms from seed this year: Livistona chinensis and Jubaea chilensis. One of the latter germinated (out of about six seeds) but none of the former. They were sown in January in a peat-based compost, in a propagator (temp c.75°F) put in a sheltered part of my conservatory. Now, I am not noted for my patience, but still I am prepared to sit it out, but have I much chance with the remaining unsprouted seeds and, if I went wrong, where did I?

3. My Phoenix canariensis is outdoors flat bang in the middle of my lawn in a sunny and reasonably sheltered position. I would be deliriously happy if it were still there in years to come and dream, one day, of hanging a hammock between this and my Trachy. I know it will take some frost and cold once established. Do I have to rush out before every cold spell to cover it with some insulating material?

4. I will be going to Barcelona in a few months and wonder if there are any places in particular you would recommend for viewing palms and other exotica aside from Las Ramblas!
Chris Miller, London SE26

I'll try and answer your questions Chris.

1. On the subject of trimming dead leaves, you have to strike a balance between leaving leaves on as long as possible (green leaves are working leaves) and the appearance of the plant, but I don't really think that cutting the leaves too soon can make so much difference to the well-being of the plant.

2. Both Jubaea and Livistona seeds need to be fresh to germinate. If they are, they usually come through in about 6-8 weeks, I don't think there's any hope after 6 months. Make sure your compost is not too wet. Try using coco-peat, and U' you can squeeze only one drop of water out of a fistful, then the moisture level is about right. Palm seeds don't need light to germinate and not all require high temperatures: Trachycarpus. Jubaea, Butia and others do best without extra heat. More tropical species prefer temperatures up to 80 or 909F. Mix the seeds (soak them for a few days first, changing the water a couple of times a day) with the coco peat in a clear plastic bag, then seal and label it. You'll be able to see through the plastic when the first sprouts appear. Both Phoenix dactylifera and P. canariensis are very easy, as it Washingtonia, and Chamaerops. Butia and Brahea are much more difficult and slow, sometimes taking a year or more to sprout.

3. Phoenix canariensis is quite hardy, and will be O.K. during an average London winter. However, as you know, every 10 years or so we have a bitter winter during which your plant will need some protection. Hessian, or an old blanket, is much better than bubble plastic, which creates condensation and damp.

If it's desperately cold, you might consider wrapping soil-warming cables around the wrapped plant. But that would only be for a few days at most, and well worth the effort. The best advice is: be prepared!!

4. You should visit the botanic garden at the bottom end of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. There are not so many palms there, but they are well worth seeing, as are the flocks of parrots that are now wild in the area, whose forbears escaped from the tiny and cruel cages of the Ramblas bird market. They look so much better flying overhead than cooped up in captivity. M.G.

Fungus Fear

I am writing to you about a problem I have experienced with Chamaerops humilis. I'm pretty sure, it's some form of disease, rather like rust on roses. It now seems to have affected both of my Chamaerops and although it responds well to treatment with Benlate and doesn't seem to affect the overall vigour of the plants, it does make them rather unsightly.

The symptoms are characteristic rust coloured marks appearing mainly on the leaves but occasionally on the petioles. In some bad cases, entire leaflets have turned brown, though this is rare. It also seems to be restricted to Chamaerops, as I have a Trachycarpus, a Phoenix and a Brahea nearby which seem to be unaffected.
Craig Snell, Highworth, Wilts
(letter shortened)

I am very familiar with these symptoms, but don't know the cause, though if they respond to Benlate it's likely to be some form of fungus. Can anyone else throw any light on this? M.G.

Eternal Triangle

I have recently bought a 6' Neodypsis decaryi (Triangle palm), which is in pristine condition, and is growing in my conservatory. The temperatures are fine at the moment, but my fear is that come the autumn/winter a minimum, almost constant temperature of 12°C/54°F may not be sufficient. I would like to know just how tolerant of low temperatures this species is, what are its needs, do you have any accurate guidelines, and would it be best to keep it the warmer living room in the winter?
John Woodhead, Whitby, N. Yorks.

The Triangle palm is a wonderful, exotic looking palm that is very easy to care for. It needs warmth (but not heat) to grow well during the summer, and is tolerant of cool temperatures during the winter but only if it is kept on the dry side, and this includes the surrounding air. So, if your conservatory is cold and damp during the winter, bring it inside. However, U' the air is dry (which it probably is if heated with an electric heater, or by radiators) leave it there. Ease up on the watering, and keep the soil barely moist. Neodypsis are incredibly drought tolerant, but seem to be sensitive to over-fertilizing, so feed at half strength, and only when it is in active growth. It should last forever! M.G.

Phoenix In London

While driving through London last autumn I was surprised to see, growing on a traffic island, one of my favourite palms, Phoenix canariensis. To me it's a real palm, possessing all the qualities a palm should have, instantly recognizable as such, and giving its surroundings an exotic atmosphere.

It's one I've wanted in my garden but I've always thought it a little too adventurous to chance, so my ten-year old specimen was confined to its pot. Then driving through London this summer, down Cheapside in the City and down Park Lane, what should I see? I couldn't believe it: two magnificent specimens outside the Royal Bank of Scotland in Cheapside, and 6 smaller ones planted down the central reservation of Park Lane, and, yes, the one on the traffic island on Lambeth Bridge had survived the winter and was thriving.

So given the brilliant summer we re having I've taken my prized ten-year old and given it its freedom and planted it out, much to the astonishment of my neighbours. It's been in the ground about six weeks and has produced three new leaves. I will protect it during the winter with straw and sacking as we re colder here than in central London. I'll also pray for global warming!
Ken White, Shenfield, Essex

We've had several other letters about the London Phoenix palms and will try to fit some photos in next time. M.G.

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  28-01-23 - 23:32GMT
 What's New?
 New palm book
 Date: 24-05-2004

An Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms
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'Palmen in Mitteleuropa'
by Mario Stähler
This german book tells you all about how to cultivate your palms in Central Europe. more...