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A Love Affair with Chamaerops

No, not the journal, surprisingly, but the wonderful, variable, adaptable palm.
Chris Miller, 30 Princethorpe Road, London SE26

Chamaerops No. 19, published online 23-07-2002

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On my recent visit to Barcelona, I decided to pay closer attention than normal to Chamaerops humilis - the Mediterranean (or European) Fan palm - both in municipal settings and also growing wild on the mountainside, and I came away infatuated with these palms. I was already familiar with some of the specimens which grow in Barcelona and on the coast, but I had not really observed them in the wild. With the help of a good friend, Fran Cardama (mild mannered doctor by day; crazed and obsessive palm fan by holiday), I was driven south from Barcelona and up into the mountains a few kilometres inland from Sitges and, after walking along a dirt track, we came to a spot where "palmitos" dotted the landscape.

I challenge anyone not to he struck by the tenacity of this palm. It seeded and grew out of cracks in bare rock, exposed to intense heat and sunlight; it rubbed shoulders with Agaves on mountainsides and survived even quite intense fires. According to Fran, there are periodic fires in the area as there have been by natural causes through history. The only difference now is the frequency (most years, some areas catch fire) and the cause (sad to say, man is normally to blame). I was shown the charcoaled remains of various stems of this palm caused by last year's fires, out of which new leaves were emerging. It is no wonder that this plant is extremely cold hardy given that its insulating top layer is so effective that it can protect the growing point from fire.

Nearby, parts of the mountain had been taken over to form a village where locally growing Chamaerops had been incorporated into gardens and, given water and, perhaps, shade from the worst of the sun, they turned from humble ground-huggers to prima donnas of up to about 3.5 metres high. While I do not profess to be botanically trained, the variation in leaf colouring (deep green to glaucous), growth habit (clumping or solitary), leaf size etc. was so evident between plants growing in the same vicinity that it surprises me that this palm has not been divided into different forms/varieties, if not into different species. Perhaps Martin Gibbons, might like to comment on this? The only book I could find in Barcelona to do with cultivating palms in Spain (Palmeras by J. A. Del Canizo - worth every one of its 2,500 pesetas) states that Snr Canizo has verified that the palm can survive at least 9 degrees Centigrade below zero. As he says, it is resistant to drought, full sun (even young plants) or half shade, poor soils, rocky soils, sandy soils and even salty sea breezes. While my 45ft by 23ft London SE26 back garden is not noted for its periodic scrub fires, even I can provide a well drained, sunny position and be fairly confident of minimum winter temperatures which do not normally drop lower than 9 degrees below zero. The small Chamaerops I planted last year came through the winter with apparent indifference. Based on what I have seen of their natural habitat, the plant probably feels no more unhappy away from its home than I feel basking on a Spanish beach. I love these palms!

Sadly, my camera and the film used in it to take umpteen photos of Chamaerops, both cultivated and in the wild, proved somewhat less adaptable and tenacious than its subject, leaving me with no photographic record for this article. I am particularly sorry since I was hoping to bring back photos demonstrating, in Fran's opinion, blue palmitos growing on the mountainside outside Barcelona. However, in my subjective opinion, the palms cited by him as being "blue" seemed no more than grey/green as opposed to grey/blue (though still beautiful) and did not match the blueness of the Chamaerops humilis photographed by Martin on a recent trip to Morocco, assuming, of course, that the camera does not lie!


Chamaerops is indeed a species of wide variation. The great Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in his 1933 Asiatic Palms’ lists and describes 9 distinct varieties: arborescens, lusitanica, dactylocarpa, decipiens, sardoa, sicula, macrocarpa, hystrix and cerifera. There are doubtless many more distinct forms all, almost certainly the same single species. The most beautiful is surely ‘Cerifera’ and a picture appears opposite. Martin Gibbons

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