Brahea armata to be precise, and a wonderful specimen
that is alive and well in Sussex, in south UK. The story of its
progress is lovingly told by Jon who would not submit the piece
until he was confident of its continuing success. Wish I'd thought
of the title.
Jon Kenahan, West Sussex, UK
Chamaerops No.21, Winter Edition 95/96
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Brahea armata, very much at home
Is this a revolutionary call to arms? Has Chamaerops
fallen to a coup? Fear not fellow palmists for I am only writing
of my recent experiences with Brahea armata, the Mexican Blue Fan
Palm, and yet I must confess to being a revolutionary, at least
as regards my attitude towards this superbly ornamental palm, and
perhaps I can persuade a few of the more radical minded to join
the party. It all started in February 1991 as I quietly sat reading
Martin Gibbons' best-selling book "Identifying Palms".
"We must have one of those, it's so pretty" came a clarion
call from over my shoulder. It was my wife Sue and she leant forward
and excitedly pointed to the picture of Brahea armata.
I must admit that I had often toyed with the idea
of planting one of these wonderful palms and here was encouragement
indeed. Planting, that is, directly into the garden soil, for I
am a keen outdoor grower of "exotics". However I had always
reached the reluctant conclusion that my area was far too cold for
this palm, living as I do on the coast of West Sussex. Now I realise
at this point that a million lips north of Watford are poised to
curl and quiver in disbelief, surely you say, I must be living in
a favoured frost-free area? Certainly, this area is milder than
most of the U.K. but it has not been frost-free in winter since
before the last Ice Age. Winter 1994 saw frosts down to -6°C,
and in 1993, another 'mild' winter, I recorded -7°C. Some years
frosts are more severe and we cannot compare with the mild areas
of the "Gulf Stream" areas of Cornwall, Western Scotland,
Southern Ireland or the inner city microclimate of London. Cold
winds in winter do not usually come from the north but rather from
the east and south east when high pressure over Eastern Europe draws
in very cold air from Siberia. Therefore you can appreciate why
I had considered a palm from the Mexican desert to be a dubious
proposition. Fine if you live on the Riviera and perhaps just possible
in extremely mild areas such as St. Mawes in Cornwall, but surely
not for me. After all there is
not even a specimen on Tresco! Yet there was that tempting voice
from over my shoulder encouraging me to take a glorious gamble.
Well, I mused, I have always been prepared to take sensible risks
with plants and go beyond what the orthodox books recommend. Usually
the results have been good. So with my muse's encouragement I decided
to take a further step into the unknown. Locating a specimen was
no problem as I am fortunate to live within two hours drive of both
Architectural Plants and the Palm Centre, I knew that Architectural
Plants had recently taken delivery of a batch of Braheas having
visited the nursery only a week previously on a different mission.
So off I sallied unto Angus White's colonial outpost in deepest
Sussex only to find a seeming absence of the Blue Palms. "Afraid
there has been a sudden rush on Brahea," said the ever-charming
Christine, "but you might just be in luck". A search party
was swiftly organised and luckily we discovered a sole survivor.
There it sat, a nice young palm with five mature leaves looking
innocent of its intended destination. On returning home I placed
it in the shelter of a shed for about three weeks and acclimatised
it by taking it out every day, weather permitting, and returning
it to its sanctuary by nightfall. During a mild spell in March I
decided to plant it out.
In theory my soil could not be more unsuitable for
the Mexican Blue Palm as I am on a fairly moisture retentive, deep,
slightly acid clay known geologically as "brickearth".
As you may have guessed it is the perfect material for making bricks!
Brahea armata originates in the region of Mexico known as Baja California,
an arid desert area subject to small and irregular amounts of rainfall,
How urdike my own dear country! I therefore took special care over
soil preparation digging extra deeply and incorporating both organic
material and grit. The position was the warmest and most sheltered
part of the garden, adjacent to a concrete terrace and about twelve
feet from the west-facing wall of my house. Here, there was good
protection from the north afforded by a neighbouring house, and
my own house guarded against cold winter wind from the east and
south east. The terrace of course was an excellent heatsink. After
the Brahea had been firmed in I laid down a layer of black woven
polypropylene which is commonly sold as a weed suppressant. Strong
and long lasting it is permeable to both air and water. However
I was particularly interested in its potential to reduce frost penetration
in winter, and increase soil temperatures in summer. The final touch
was a three-quarters of an inch mulch of gravel chippings. Now to
sit hack and wait.
The first spear opened in June, a second in July and
finally a third opened in August. I was amazed for Brahea armata
has reputation of being very slow in cooler climates and even sometimes
standing still in its first season. So would 1995 prove even more
exciting? Autumn drew on and my thoughts turned to winter protection.
At this point I should state candidly that I am a member of the
"minimalist protection" tendency. I am not one to juggle
with bales of straw, or plug myself into the National Grid. Nor
in the case of the Blue Fan palm was I tempted to use either blue
paraffin or a fan heater! No criticism is intended of other methods
and sometimes there is a good case for them but I have always preferred
to grow my "exotics" with the minimum of mollycoddling.
I simply wrapped the Brahea in horticultural fleece from the base
to the highest point of the spear, tying in place where necessary.
The leaves were entirely unprotected.
The winter was fairly mild but in March we had a night
of snow and sleet. Nothing to worry about, the temperature was only
hovering around freezing point. Then suddenly in the very early
hours the skies cleared and the temperature dropped to -5°C
and the sleet/snow mixture turned into thick ice. In the morning
the leaves of the Brahea hung heavily; the lower ones against the
ground. However by early afternoon temperatures had risen, the ice
melted and the leaves returned to their normal positions without
any sign of damage. Curiously, though, the beautiful silver-blue
leaves seemed even brighter than before! The winter of 94/95 turned
out to be one of the wettest on record and the Brahea had to cope
with additional rain water running off my terrace, but it didn't
seem in the slightest bothered. In April spring arrived, the horticultural
fleece was removed and I applied a little blood, fish and bone fertilizer.
Would the excellent rate of growth continue we wondered? We did
not have long to wait.
The first spear opened on 30th April followed by a
second a month later. A third opened at the end of June and a fourth
on 31st July. Leaf 5 appeared only fifteen days later, and although
September was cooler, the sixth leaf opened on the 19th! Since being
planted back in March 1994 the Brahea had put on an extra nine leaves,
had doubled its overall size to forty inches tall and five feet
across and was also in superb condition as good if not better than
specimens grown under glass.
Was this remarkable rate of growth due perhaps to
the hot summer? I decided to call fellow E. P. S. member and Chamaerops
contributor Charles Jackson. Charles is a highly experienced plantsman
and has been successfully palming for over twenty years. In the
summer 1994 edition of Chamaerops Charles mentions a number of palms
that he had planted earlier that year including Brahea armata. So
how were the palms doing I asked. Well, the Jubaea chilensis and
the Trithrinax acanthacoma were doing brilliantly, but the Brahea
was only growing as slowly as the literature indicated.
This was odd as we both live close to the sea, we
both have a heavy soil, and our summer temperatures must have been
very similar. Not only that but Charles had also planted his Brahea
close to a terrace to take advantage of the heatsink effect. It
therefore seems that my success was not just due to the hot summer.
Nor do I believe that feeding was the answer either. I did feed,
weekly with a half strength nitrogen feed between the end of April
and early July but only because the palm was obviously happy and
growing well. New members please note: I did not attempt to "push"
the palm along, or force its growth. That is a policy that can only
end in tears. Whilst the books are correct in stating that palms
respond well to fertilisation they are usually referring to large
established specimens. With newly planted or slow growing palms
the best advice is to be very cautious preferably checking with
your palm supplier first.
Well amigos, perhaps you can see why I started this
article by calling myself a revolutionary, for having once regarded
Brahea armata as being slow and difficult my attitude has undergone
a complete revolution of 180 degrees. Is this initial success an
isolated occurrence? Surely not. This is where you come in, fellow
members. Do you live in a cool temperate area and are you also enjoying
successful growth with this wonderful palm? Maybe your's is growing
even faster! Please don't keep it to yourself. Write in to "Chamaerops"
and share your recipe for success. I have heard rumours of other
"fast" Braheas but as yet I have no hard facts. Whether
it is down to cultivation, soil temperatures, provenance or whatever
I do not know, but I am confident that if we can isolate the common
factors that lead to fast growth then we can persuade others to
join the cause. Brahea armata will never be a palm for cold areas,
but if you live in a favoured spot and are feeling brave, why not
give it a try? Start a Mexican revolution in your own back garden;
a popular uprising which, hopefully, will end peacefully, not with
a bang... but with a whimper!
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18-03-19 - 13:30GMT
|| What's New?
|| New palm book
| Date: 24-05-2004
of Cultivated Palms
by Robert Lee Riffle, Paul Craft.
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| Date: 03-12-2002
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by Mario Stähler
This german book tells you all about how to cultivate your palms in Central Europe. more...