Viva Armata!

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

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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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