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,
Chamaerops No. 19, published online 23-07-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
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.
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!
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, 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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18-01-19 - 01:00GMT
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