Palms in Austria

No, not Australia! Not normally thought of as the kind of place you might find palms, Robert describes the joys and problems of 'sub-tropical' gardening in the skiing nation.
Robert Lackner, Feldgasse 48, Bad Deutsch, Altenburg, Austria

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

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Winter & Summer views in Austria

In the autumn issue '93 of Chamaerops our Editor complained that he only received articles from U.K. members and none from the rest of Europe. Well, I thought, let's do something about it. In that issue you also asked a question that concerns me - because I'm Austrian namely: 'Do you have to heat your glass-house in Austria?' I'd say that depends on exactly where you're living here. Most people regard Austria as a cold country and think of the snowy mountains and ski-races. Admittedly the mountainous regions are not the warmest, but the flatland east of Vienna, where I live, is anything but cold. This part of Austria is the only one that belongs to the pannonic climate (like most parts of Hungary), which is a dry, continental climate with cold, dry winters, warm springs and autumns, and usually hot, often dry summers. Some places quite near to where I live, perhaps only 50 to 100 km away don't belong to this climate type and it's much cooler there by comparison. For example last February we had a period of quite severe frost, during which the temperature dropped to -l0 to -13C. At the same time, only 50 kms away, they had -23C for two nights. And this difference makes it possible that some hardy palms thrive here, when they would have almost no chance just 100 kms away. Although in some other regions summers are also quite warm (especially in southern Austria), their winter temperatures are mostly too cool to grow even hardy palms. Another region, which is also quite mild during the winter, is the extreme west of Austria, around the Bodensee. This area is also quite suitable for some hardy palms. Though summer temperatures are much lower there than here in the east, the winters are maybe even milder there due to the greater impact of Atlantic air, which doesn't influence the east so much.

I live in the east near Slovakia and Hungary and we have snow only for a few days each winter, in severe winters perhaps for several weeks but this is not very often. The temperatures during the winter are usually around 0C, but sometimes reach the extremes of +22C and -22 C. (the year when we reached -22C they even had -21C in Florence, Italy), although both occur extremely seldom. Once or twice each winter the temperature can drop to -l5"C at night, but there are also winters (e.g. the last two) where the temperature barely drops to -10C. In the three winters between '88 and '90, temperatures around +20"C were more common than heavy frost. This winter we had -7C only twice, which is very mild and most of the winter was actually completely free of frost.

To many of the U.K. members these temperatures must seem not much warmer than a freezer, because the winters in G.B. are quite mild by comparison. And of course you might ask: is such a climate suitable for palms? Believe me I couldn't have imagined so either. But then, 7 years ago I purchased a Trachycarpus fortunei and of course I wanted to know how to treat it and bought a palm book. First I regarded it as incredible what the author wanted to make me believe, namely that this palm withstands frost of -15C without serious problems. But then I decided to give it a try and planted a Trachy outside. I bought another small Trachy as a special offer (£40). The first I kept in a tub and the other one I planted in the ground. To my great surprise it worked. After the first winter only a few fans were damaged but by and large the palm was in good condition, and in the next couple of years I was able to watch the difference in growth between the two. While the palm in the tub grew only one inch a year, the one in the ground achieved an unbelievable speed of growth. Every year its trunk increases 10 inches in height and it puts up 10 to 15 new leaves. In spring 94 it even flowered for the first time. Since then its trunk has grown more than 3 feet.

Encouraged by these results I planted another two Trachycarpus outside, but this time I chose larger plants. All three of them grow very well and throughout the last 5 winters none of them has shown any sign of damage due to freezing, neither brown nor tattered fans. With light winter protection the palms survived once even -17C without damage. A gardener told me that he grew a Trachycarpus fortunei in one of the cooler regions of Austria and it survived (with some protection, and damage of uncertain degree) an incredible -25'C in the disaster winter of 1985! That gives me the impression that even in extremely cold winters a Trachycarpus can survive with some protection. Unfortunately I have no absolute proof of that story, but what I can give proof of is that it survived -17C here at my home without visible damage. Perhaps if you grow Trachycarpus in areas with such cold winters it increases its resistance to frost by an important few degrees after a number of years.

Certainly our winters are much colder than in the U.K., but at least we don't suffer from wet cold. Our weather is more influenced by continental air, and is therefore drier and more stable, especially here in the east. The cold winter weather is the reverse of the coin, but on the other hand we have very warm springs (May here is as warm as July in London!) and autumns, and the summers are usually quite hot and dry (the daytime temperatures from April to September are the same as in Nice). And because the average annual rainfall is only slightly above 20 inches, we can enjoy plenty of sun and warmth from spring to autumn, while the rest of the country further west can suffer from cold and wet weather. The bathing season lasts from the end of April to the beginning of October and during this time we enjoy the exotic plants very much, because it gives a feeling of being far away from home.

I discovered that there are some Trachys with very soft leaves, which have almost no resistance to wind, yet on the other hand I have some specimens in the garden which are exposed to very strong winds and which keep the fans in perfect shape even after bad storms. So watch out if you buy a Trachy and check the toughness of the leaves.

Perhaps a Trachycarpus is not of too much of interest any more for the British members, because it's a hardy palm in all parts of the U.K., but I hope this article will be useful for those living in colder regions, as the information we receive here on the continent about the hardiness of exotic plants is mostly from Britain (thanks to their gardeners' unremitting research) and is therefore unfortunately not always of much use, because completely hardy-to-cold in Britain must not lead to the conclusion that a plant is also hardy everywhere on the continent. Apart from that, some plants requiring lots of heat and sunshine won't do very well during British summers and are therefore too feeble to survive even the mild winters of coastal regions, or just vegetate motionless. On the other hand those plants could thrive in continental climates, despite the colder winters here, because of the summer heat.

What might be of more interest than a Trachycarpus are the other palms I'm growing in the garden. Last year I took the risk of planting a Butia capitata outside, which is certainly not as hardy as a Trachy (not even close), but obviously the risk paid off, because the palm looks fine in spite of more than a week of permanent - but not too severe - frost last December. If I have more information about what happens with the Butia in colder winters I'll let you know. Additionally I managed to get hold of some new palms last winter, which were very difficult to locate, namely: Nannorrhops ritchiana (2 green and 2 silver/blue, which were just beginning to form their first fan-shaped leaves, 2 Jubaea chilensis (about I foot (30 cm) high), 2 Sabal minor (5-6 feet high), 1 Serenoa repens with lots of little fans, 1 Rhapidophyllum hystrix (30 cm high, divided fans), 1 Trachycarpus martianus (30 cm high, already divided fans), I Trachycarpus wagnerianus (about 40 cm (16 inches) high, with lovely little fans) and 6 Trachycarpus takil (seedlings).

I know that Nannorrhops ritchiana doesn't grow very well (or even at all) in Britain, but hopefully it will thrive in our hot, dry summers here. If it does it could be an ideal palm for climates similar to ours, due to its ability to tolerate severe (but dry) frosts. As far as I know it should tolerate temperatures between -20 and -22C without damage if it's kept dry during the winter. I planted one silver/blue and one green Nannorrhops in the open ground at the beginning of March and I'm watching the difference between them and the 2 specimens I kept in the tub. The blue form should be relatively fast growing, at least compared to the green form. Though its frost-tolerance, especially of the blue form, is not 100% certain, it could be almost a match for Rhapidophyllum. Furthermore I've no clue how fast it grows in the open ground here, I only know that attempts to grow Nannorrhops in Britain in the open ground were fruitless.

I also decided to give Jubaea chilensis a try. Unfortunately I couldn't afford to purchase a larger one and so I had to take rather small plants, which means it'll take quite a long time to get some results as far as growth in the open ground is concerned. I think the two Sabal minor should also thrive very well in our hot summer climate and apart from that I heard they can take quite heavy frosts, down to -20C. Rhapidophyllum hystrix is certainly not a suitable palm for Great Britain, but in my garden it threw up its first new fan in April and is still growing well, though it's still a quite small plant. Though it's a slow grower in Great Britain, I think it will grow quite well, and much faster here.

Its enormous tolerance of frost (down to -23C or maybe even -25) should encourage everyone living in the more continental climates of Europe with cold winters and hot summers to give this plant a try. When I have more detailed information about the speed of growth in our climate I'll let you all know. The Serenoa repens I think should also be quite hardy in our climate and will certainly do well in the sunny position where I planted it. I heard -13C shouldn't be too much of a problem for this palm, but I guess I'll find that out sooner or later for myself.

The Trachycarpus wagnerianus - though only a rather small plant right now - is really extremely beautiful with its small fans and has, as far as I know, approximately the same frost tolerance as T. fortunei.

Perhaps the ideal palm for winter cold climates will he Trachycarpus takil in the future, because this palm is even hardier than its relative T. fortunei. I've heard it will tolerate -18C without damage and could survive temperatures below -20C. Unfortunately only seedlings are available at this time, but hopefully in the future some larger specimens will he obtainable. I'll try to raise my T. takil seedlings to a reasonable size and then I'll plant them in the open ground to speed up growth.

I think T. takil will become very popular in 10 or 20 years due to its high tolerance of frost and its ability to grow in cooler summers (unlike the ultra-hardies Nannorrhops and Rhapidophyllum) quite well. Apart from that it has almost the same appearance as T. fortunei (maybe a little larger) and therefore it might better meet the common expectation of what a palm is than, say, Rhapidophyllum hystrix. Perhaps it'll some time be a widespread palm tree in areas where even T. fortunei is not 100% certain to survive the coldest winters. Hopefully I can tell you in a couple of years how the T. takils do in my garden.

I'll try to grow the Nannorrhops, Rhapidophyllum, Serenoa and Sabal minor without winter protection (maybe not for the first years, but later) and hope it will work out well. Perhaps also the Trachycarpus takil could grow here without any shelter at all. Every winter I give the T. fortunei protection to the roots by means of straw, and wrap a blanket around the leaves, but even this shelter is not necessary every winter. I try to keep the palms completely dry during the winter, unless periods of warm weather occur.

But we don't only have palms in our garden, we also have some other rather exotic plants, which grow without any winter protection around here. These are: several Yucca gloriosa (with trunks up to 4 feet), a Yucca aloifolia 'Variegata', a couple of Aucuba japonica and Fatsia japonica, 2 Cupressus sempervirens, (Italian Cypress), a Magnolia grandiflora, a sweet chestnut-tree and 4 fig-frees (Ficus carica) with sometimes quite a lot of edible figs, twice a year

Furthermore I have recently planted a hardy banana, Musa basjoo, in the ground, which will he protected during the winter with a bale of straw. Thus I have no idea how it'll grow here, although I know from hearsay it shouldn't be too difficult, as it grows quite fast in warm weather (given appropriate irrigation).

Many people seeing our garden can hardly believe their eyes. To begin with, some of them were smiling at me, because knowledge of palms is not very high in Austria (and indeed in most areas you'll not be successful with growing palms outside, even with a Trachy). But step by step more and more people are becoming interested in these exotic plants and today in my home village there are at least five gardens with Trachycarpus fortunei in the ground, and I'm sure this number will increase in the years to come.

Additionally next week I'm going to plant some larger Trachycarpus in the front garden, so that more people can see the palms, which will hopefully encourage some of them to try this also in their own gardens. On the contrary Yucca gloriosa, edible chestnut and fig trees are quite often seen around here, but perhaps in a few years we'll find some palms in more front gardens. To my astonishment I recently saw two Araucaria araucana (the monkey puzzle tree) in a garden, which have been grown in that place for a couple of years with no protection, an indication that they are a lot hardier than many people might believe.

I hope I will be able to give you an update about the new palms I've planted and I'd also be glad to receive additional information about these species. So if anyone has more detailed knowledge please let me know or write an article for Chamaerops. I think the information will be useful for those living in colder winter climates than Britain's and it would be a further contribution to spreading the word about palms in Europe.

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