It Happened to Me...

First in what is hoped will be a series of 'meeting palm people', Philippe tells his (palm-) life story.
Philippe Byrne, Little Brookfield, Pinn Lane, Pinhoe, Exeter, Devon

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

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Early Days

I was standing near a large Trachycarpus fortunei growing in a tub at a West Country nursery in 1976, when a tiny insect jumped from its home deep in the trunk, and bit me. I didn't see it at the time because it was, of course, the mythical Palm Bug. I was instantly and irreversibly affected and from that moment palms became beautiful and fascinating to my eyes. I bought the Trachy, and so began my palm life.

In those days, only four palm species were available in British nurseries, but luckily I had heard about the Palm Society in America (now the International Palm Society). I joined in 1979 and began to buy seed from the Seed Bank, which arrived in delightful little cotton bags. I was fairly indiscriminate. buying seed of anything that caught my fancy in the black & white illustrations of "Palms of the World" (James McCurrach, 1960). This included many tropical, as well as sub-tropical and warm-temperate species. Although I had considerable germination success, the more tropical ones sickened and died sooner or later. This didn't deter me - I kept on trying. At one point I built up to a collection of 83 species - a list that looked impressive on paper but in reality consisted mainly of fairly indistinguishable grass-like seedlings.

Experience Tells

As the years went by, I realized that the palms which grew really well were the hardiest ones. The tropical species tantalized and then disappointed me. I had begun to travel by then, and visited the wonderful botanic gardens in Singapore and Bogor, Java. There I saw tropical palms growing luxuriantly outdoors as Nature intended. Reluctantly, I admitted to myself that growing these palms in England was an impossible dream. Even the major botanic gardens of Europe, with all their resources, struggle to grow a limited number of tropical palms, often with mixed results.

It is a sobering and rather depressing thought to consider the enormous cost of providing even one acre of hot, moist glasshouse space, and then to remember that thousands of acres of tropical rainforest, with their enormous diversity of plant and animal life, are destroyed every day.

The only long term solution to saving endangered species is to save their habitat, and that means enforcing policies to which the governments of the world often do little more than pay lip service.

Back home, I resolved to grow only the hardier palms, but to concentrate on the choicest of these, and to grow them as near perfectly as possible.

The Palm House Arises

In my early childhood I walked past the Edgbaston Botanic Garden every school day. Our family had a season pass, and I was taken in through the huge steamy hot-houses to play in the gardens outside. As long as I can remember, I have wanted a big greenhouse of my own, and this culminated in the design and building single-handedly of the Palm House in the summers of 1989 & 1990. It is approximately 66ft by 2Oft (20m x 6m) and two-thirds of it is given over to a landscaped bed with all the plants growing directly in the soil. Pride of place goes to two Trithrinax acanthocoma grown from Palm Society seed in 1980. They are 6ft tall now, and there is a distinct possibility that they will flower and fruit in the near future. Because the leaves are protected from rain, they keep their covering of silvery hairs, which would otherwise wash off. Though I say it myself, these two palms are quite stunning - the jewel in the crown of my collection, and they always attract the most attention from 'palm visitors'.

The other main specimens are Brahea armata, B. brandegeei, B. brandegeei x edulis, B. edulis, 2 silver forms of Chamaerops humilis. Parajubaea cocoides, Rhapis excelsa - with especially vibrant green leaves - and the ever-satisfying Trachycarpus wagnerianus. I also grow bananas, strelitzias, agaves and cannas. I cannot praise the cannas too highly. If palms sometimes seem rather slow growing, cannas give the thrill of sports car acceleration. They perform wonderfully under glass, growing much taller than outside and repeat flowering for weeks on end. They are the perfect foil for the rather stiff fan palms, and they look highly tropical with their large, lush leaves and brilliant exotic flowers.

Scent is provided by various jasmines, tender rhododendrons and, when I am feeling extravagant, tuberoses. The Palm House is not heated in the winter, so I stop watering around the end of October and allow the soil to get rather dry. I have found from experience that the palms and other plants get through the winter well on this regime, even though the temperature falls well below freezing - sometimes for several nights in a row. I start watering again when it begins to warm up, usually at the end of February - sparingly at first and then heavily by May.

The 'Sub Tropical' Garden

In my front garden, I have planted a grove of 17 Trachycarpus fortunei. They form quite a varied collection as they have been planted at various times in various sizes and from different suppliers - so that their ultimate origin is unknown. The tallest is now over 13ft (4m). As they assume their full mature character, it is interesting to see the subtle variety of leaf shapes and colours, and even differences in the colour of the trunk fibres. Some, for example, have a noticeable white bloom on the underside of the leaves. Some have stiff leaves, others less so. One particular tree has leaves the ends of which droop so regularly, it could be called a weeping palm.

When it comes to flowering time in May, the male plants particularly have spectacular corn-yellow inflorescences. I trim off old leaves in April and again in late August, as September is the time of year Trachy's look their best. I am hoping over the next couple of years to build a folly amongst these Trachys in the form of a Hindoo temple complex complete with statues of Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Ganesh etc. I have found with follies that they look so much better when constructed close to established plants. A Roman arch, which I have been building this summer, leads to the middle garden. There, two of the three Washingtonia filifera featured in the autumn '93 issue of Chamaerops survive and flourish. They have been through 5 winters planted in the ground outside, protected for 6 months of the year with straw 'overcoats'.

Nearby a silver form of Chamaerops humilis, also planted out in 1990 is growing magnificently without any winter protection. At this point, I would like to mention my view on growing borderline hardy palms outside i.e. Phoenix canariensis. Glasshouse space permitting, I would usually favour indoor culture over outdoor, simply because the palms look so much better, and keep their last year- and year before leaves in perfect condition. My large Brahea, for example, has a full head of about 25 leaves (so many, it's difficult to count them!). I find I cut them off, not because they have gone brown, but because they bend down towards the ground while still green, and take up too much space.

If a particular palm can look good outside then by all means grow it, but if it struggles to survive and looks awful then be honest with yourself, dig it up, tub it, and put it under glass! The small back garden is palmless, but there is a fine, large Arbutus unedo rubra, and rather surprisingly, a massive 'Easter Island' statue believed to have been built by a group of islanders who visited Devon back in the 15th century!

The Future

As the palms in the Palm House get ever bigger, I am faced with the exciting but nerve-racking prospect of moving some of them outside. Obviously the Trachycarpus wagnerianus and Chamaerops humilis first and maybe even a Trithrinax acanthocoma or Brahea (always bearing in mind what I said earlier).

I haven't given up seedlings altogether. For the 'next generation' I am nurturing Trachycarpus martianus, T. takil, and most exciting of all, T. 'sikkimensis', provided by intrepid plant hunters Messrs Gibbons & Spanner. If T. fortunei could be described as the 'Palm of the Century for the 19th century, Trithrinax acanthocoma would be that of the 20th, and hopefully, T. 'sikkimensis' that of the 21st.

Finally

Finally, I would like to offer the following encouragement to my fellow palm enthusiasts. If you persevere with the right palms for your growing conditions, you will find that after a few years they settle into a period of reliable, steady (and sometimes even rather fast) growth. All you have to do is to look after them and watch them get bigger and more beautiful every year.

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