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Phoenix rupicola - The Cliff Date Palm

A palm that's about to become very popular, and so beautiful it shouldn't be a Phoenix palm at all.
Tobias W. Spanner, Tizianstr.44 , 80638 Munich, Germany
Chamaerops No. 18, published online 23-07-2002

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Phoenix rupicola, the Cliff Date Palm

For a moment, put aside all the characteristics you would usually associate with Phoenix palms. Forget the oases and hard-leaved, stocky and spiny palms frying under the burning desert sun. Instead, imagine a Phoenix Palm as beautiful as a Coconut, with soft, gracefully arching, glossy green fronds and a smooth, slender, light grey trunk, curving outwards from some steep slope or cliff in a hilly jungle. Phoenix roebelenii? Well, close, but there is actually a Phoenix that easily beats even the Pygmy Date Palm for looks. Phoenix rupicola, (emphasis on the 'pic') the Cliff Date Palm is its name. Its home is the lower foothills of the Himalaya in India, namely Sikkim, West-Bengal and Arunchal Pradesh and probably in Bhutan, which lies in between these three Indian states. It grows on steep slopes or cliffs, sometimes on bare rock at altitudes between 100 and 400m in more or less dense, lush monsoonal forest, and is frequently seen together with an equally stunning palm, Wallichia disticha. Phoenix rupicola is easily distinguished from any other species of Phoenix. Its trunk is solitary, slender, light grey in colour and devoid of any remains of leaf bases or conspicuous leaf scars, around 20cm (8") in diameter and up to 12m high, topped by a full, rounded crown of numerous strongly arching leaves, about 3m (10') long. The emerging leaves are furnished with a white scurf. The numerous leaflets are closely spaced, long and narrow, drawn out into a finely pointed apex, bright glossy green in colour and all inserted in one plane on the rachis, giving the leaf a flat appearance. The latter feature is clearly apparent already in young plants and makes identification very easy. Fruits mature through yellow and violet red to dark red-purple. The seeds are oblong. 1,5 to 2cm long and narrow, deeply grooved on one side.

Like other Phoenix palms, the Cliff Date Palm is easy and fast growing. It is very adaptable and can be grown in temperate as well as tropical climates, certainly in areas where temperatures do not drop below -6C. Phoenix rupicola has not been tried to any extent as an indoor plant, though its environmental requirements suggest that it would do as well as Phoenix roebelenii, the Pygmy Date. It will certainly do very well as a conservatory-plant. Although not particularly fussy, for best results the Cliff Date Palm requires a humus-rich, well-drained soil and regular applications of fertilizer. Its resistance to drought is lower than in most other species of the genus and plants should be kept well watered at all times. It does equally well in full sun or partial shade though young plants look best if somewhat protected. Due to its flexible leaves, its resistance to wind is considerable and it will take some exposure when established. In areas of low humidity, Phoenix rupicola can be easily attacked by spider mites and regular checks should be made. Propagation is by seeds only; they germinate readily after 1 to 3 months at 2O to 3O°C.

Despite all its qualities and, because of its size and habit, its great potential as a landscape subject, Phoenix rupicola is still rare in cultivation. As far as my knowledge is concerned, with one possible exception, there are no mature specimens in all of Europe and one particular reason for that might have been the scarcity of seeds. Seeds collected from the rather few Phoenix rupicola in cultivation around the world though present another problem. Like all other Phoenix, the species is dioecious and hybridization with other members of the genus is so common that seeds coming from cultivated sources frequently produce plants, which do not have the desired qualities of the true species. Especially for landscape purposes, the source of seeds or plants should be taken into account very seriously.

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