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My Hardy Palms: Trials, Tribulations & Triumphs

Practical? You want practical? In this painstakingly written article Robert shares with us his hopes, dreams and techniques of growing hardy palms in Austria. Practical it is!
Robert Lackner, Feldgasse 48, Bad Deutsch Altenburg, Austria
Chamaerops No.21, Winter Edition 95/96

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Left: Snow fun for an Austrian Trachy
Right: Summer and Winter in Austria

Due to the good response I received following my article in Chamaerops' summer issue (Palms in Austria) I've been encouraged by our editor to write a follow-up for the magazine. Normally I wouldn't have done this before next spring or summer, but there was one thing that forced me to put hands on the keyboard again, namely: the worst winter we have been experiencing in a long time. Biting snowstorms, long periods of sometimes severe frost and lots of snow have been ruling most of the winter so far over the past 10 weeks, not only in northern Europe, which has just been going through one of its most severe winters for a long time, but also here in Austria's flatland areas. Additionally this ice-cold winter weather coincides with a couple of palm experiments I've been conducting, which give further proof of what some palms really can cope with. So far the experiments have been successful, albeit winter is not over yet, but at least the cold has loosened its wrathful grip now for a while. Yet winter is only lessened for a short time, because the weather forecast promises severe night-frosts for next week again. I yearn for a warm February like last year when +15°C to +20°C in the shade were quite common throughout the whole month, because that is when we usually unwrap all the sheltered palms. After a few hours' work the garden once again resembles a tropical paradise...

But first of all I'd like to take this opportunity of telling you how I became interested in palms generally. When I was a young boy my parents took me every summer to Tyrol, Austria's westernmost-but-one province. Most of the time we were hiking up in the mountains, but as Tyrol's weather is not stable throughout the summer we had to suffer some pretty chilly and rainy weather sometimes. Even in the summer, temperatures can drop below 10°C there and snowfall down to 1500m is also not unknown at this time of the year. When such rain fronts moved in to Tyrol we usually headed for South Tyrol. Italy's northernmost province was until 1921 part of Tyrol and thus of Austria and in fact its people and landscape remind the visitor of the alpine regions of western Austria. But there is also something that tells you that you're in Italy, namely: palms. Many parts of this region are protected by mighty mountains from the cool arctic fronts that move in from northern Europe. Only the mild air moving up from the south can flow in unhindered. Driving from Tyrol on a wet and cold summer day to South Tyrol gives you the impression of entering a whole new world. Though only some 60 km (as the crow flies) separate Meran (in South Tyrol) from Innsbruck (in Tyrol), their climates seems to be separated by 500 km. 120 cloudless days per year, no fog at all and an annual winter temperature of more than 12°C make Meran a very special place at this latitude. Places at the same latitude in southern Austria are much cooler by comparison especially in winter. When you pass the mountains at the border and drive down to Meran you could almost believe you're somewhere in Paradise.

Only a few kilometres before, you've passed the glaciers of some of the highest mountains in Austria and then you dive into a subtropical jungle with palms, huge fig trees, oranges and many other exotic plants. Looking a bit closer in some places I could even spot some Phoenix canariensis and Cycas revoluta, though most of the palms planted there are Trachycarpus fortunei. The Trachys I had seen there are amongst the most beautiful ones I know, as the lack of wind and lots of sunshine contribute to their well-being. It was not only the mere presence of those palms that fascinated me so much but rather the extreme contrast between the alpine vegetation, the enormous mountains (between 2500m and 3900m) and the subtropical plants.

By this time I believed that Meman's exotic vegetation was explained by its extremely mild climate. You can imagine that I was somehow puzzled when in 1986 I spent some days in Meran again and an elderly man told me that during the past winter they had had some -18°C there. 'How can that be?', I asked myself. 'How can those palms and all that stuff they grow around here look so healthy and thrive so well ? No, it can't be. We hardly get -18°C back home and we don't have any palms there!' I considered this innocent elderly man to be a bit mentally deranged but as I was not absolutely sure about this I had to make some investigations. The rest is history. When I found out that it was indeed true I vowed that I'd also grow palms back home in Austria. Some years later - also in Meran - I came across the hardy banana Musa basjoo for the first time and again I couldn't believe it. 'No don't start that again', I thought, 'palms yes, OK, but bananas ? No, never, it simply can't be. This is probably just some fake, it must be dug in with a tub or whatever. A banana can't thrive in a climate where once -18°C occurred even if this was an exception. Every child knows that bananas grow in the tropics' . I was wrong again, just how, I found out many years later. So that's how the whole costly matter began and since then I've been collecting and planting a frightening number of palms, bananas and whatsoever else I could get hold of.

Now I want to tell you something about the aforementioned palm-experiments. This year's weather was really weird in many ways. Precipitation much above normal, a cool spring, a hot and completely dry summer and a rainless and very warm October with more than four weeks of unbroken sunshine, and temperatures of sometimes more than 27°C were followed by an unseasonably early snowfall in the first week of November. The first three weeks of December were mostly around zero with more snow again. But then it began. Three exceptionally mild days at Christmas with 15°C and then again a heavy snowfall only this time the temperature dropped rapidly and did not stop until it reached -14°C. Even during the day the mercury didn't climb higher than -9°C to 4°C. A couple of nights followed with temperatures below -10°C again. The whole frost period lasted from December 26th to January 7th. Worst of all was the snowdrift that within some hours caused the traffic to break down completely in some areas of eastern Austria. Snowdrifts reached staggering heights of between 2 and 4m. Incredible! Arterial roads had to be closed for two days because the snow-ploughs couldn't cope with the masses of snow any more.

Believe me I was not too enthusiastic that the worst winter for many years coincided with the palm experiments I'd started. These trials meant I should leave some of my palms outside unprotected -during the whole winter. The species in question were: a 20 - 30cm high Rhapidophyllum hystrix, a Trachycarpus fortunei 40 cm high (this special Trachy showed clear signs of interbreeding with its hardier relative T. takil, it was that which made me buy it), and two Trachys with trunk heights between 30 and 50 cm. There are two facts to mention, namely that I cleared away all the snow from the palms so that they were not protected by it and for the first time I measured the temperature right at the palms' fans. I did this at the T. fortunei/takil at its fan height, i.e. about 30 cm above the ground. And what I found out there was really a surprise to me. The temperature near the ground was 3-4°C lower than 2m above the surface. The maximum-minimum thermometer showed clearly that this little poor Trachy had had to withstand -17°C unprotected. Considering this I expected all the Trachys to wilt. Especially the fans of one of them looked extremely poor, they were very dark green and somehow folded. You can imagine I was rather bewildered when after the first thaw the leaves unfolded again and looked like nothing has happened. Even after a couple of rather warm days no damages except a light tip-burn affecting a few leaves was visible. The little Trachy was the only one that suffered some real damage as about 50% of its fans were heavily damaged though not dead, the rest of them were unharmed. The largest of those three was completely undamaged and had no tip-burn at all. Perhaps this may be due to the fact that its leaves are higher above the ground than those of the other Trachys and therefore the temperature was 3 or 4°C higher. No need to mention that the Rhapidophyllum hystrix was also not harmed. Indeed it may have laughed at those -17°C temperatures.

Also part of the experiment were two Sabal minor which also remained outside unsheltered. It turned out that the leaves that had already began to turn slightly yellow during the hot summer became brown, whereas the green ones kept their good shape. A Trachycarpus takil seedling I planted out in October (not really a good time) was also hardly touched by the heavy frosts, though I have to admit it was protected during the most severe frost by means of a snow heap. A couple of rather big Trachycarpus fortunei (the largest about 3 m, trunks between 1m and l.80m) also stay outside and are protected by some straw on the ground and a blanket wrapped around the leaves. The abovesaid experiments tell me even this shelter is not necessary. I'm somehow astonished that reports from the southern parts of the USA show that Trachys were killed or damaged there at sometimes much milder temperatures. In my opinion this can only lead to the conclusion that the palms reduce the frost resistance after a series of warm winters. Especially in the south-east of the States mild winters are the norm, albeit once in a while arctic air is sent down sometimes even to Florida. Normally they don't have to cope with low temperatures and once they occur they're not really 'prepared', whereas here in eastern Austria cold and cool winters occur quite often, i.e. at least a certain period of every winter is cold.

This year my largest Trachy, which is a female plant, produced its first fruits and I really have to say quite a bunch of them. I really was excited by this event as it was the first year where male and female plants bloomed together. What is a bit of a surprise to me is the time when the Trachys begin to put out their new blooms. The yellow tips become already visible in December. Last winter I attributed this to the extremely mild weather but this is clearly not so this year. Some other plants that remained in the open ground unprotected were Magnolia grandiflora, Cupressus sempervirens and many yuccas such as two Yucca aloifolia variegata and Yucca gloriosa What I found out about those two yuccas species is that they seems to take a lot more frost than previously assumed. I have definite proof that Yucca gloriosa grows in some areas in Austria where the night-temperatures drop almost every winter to -20°C and below. That would also explain why some really large Yucca gloriosa grow in my area despite the disastrous winter of 1985 where -22°C in my area was recorded in some places and only a few kilometres away, even -27°C. The yuccas are still there and were never protected. Also the Yucca aloifolia 'variegata' in my garden showed not the slightest sign of stress at -18°C and I truly believe they can also cope with temperatures of at least -20°C. Indeed in northern Italy I purchased a Yucca aloifolia and the gardener there told me that -20°C wouldn't be a problem for this plant. I think he knew what he was talking about as especially northern Italy was also struck by the winter of 1985.

In my last article I promised to tell you more about my then recently-planted palms. The results were quite interesting. Even my Rhapidophyllum hystrix achieved a satisfactory growth rate. In its first summer it threw up three new leaves though it is a very small plant and has only one stem'. Encouraged by this, last autumn I bought two large clumps of Rhapidophyllum about 150 cm high with a couple of trunks each. One is a female plant, the other a male one and the female plant has already ripe fruits. I think these large plants will produce - once established - a quite good number of leaves a year, but of course not nearly as many as my Trachys, which now throw up 15 fans a year and whose trunks increase by a foot in the same time. But of course they (the Rhapidos) are so extremely hardy they should even survive disaster winters without protection, whereas I'm not so certain about this with Trachycarpus fortunei, though I again received a report where a Trachy survived -20°C unprotected (by accident) . You can't really expect it will keep its leaves at those temperatures but if a plant produces 10 to 15 new ones in a year this is not a tragedy.

The Nannorrhops ritchieana are worthy of a mention here. Probably the most obvious fact for me was that the green Nanny is undoubtedly hardier and especially more resistant against bugs than its blue counterpart. I had a blue and a green Nannorrhops in the open ground. As I planted them in early March, and last year's spring was very wet and cold they had to endure some severe weather. The green one survived; the blue one wilted. Admittedly a friend of mine also grows a blue Nanny outside but he planted it much later and he protects it with straw during most of the winter. His one still thrives. Another fact is that the second blue Nanny I have was heavily damaged by just 2 hours of -11°C to maybe (above the snow-surface) -14°C. Its leaves wilted only a couple of hours later (the tub was covered with snow). The reason why I was forced to put it outside during those temperatures was that it was heavily attacked by bugs which I couldn't get rid of even with a few degrees below zero outside. Also a fact is that a pot-grown green Nannorrhops that was placed just beside the blue one all the time was not affected by the bug attack. Apart from that, the green one planted outside withstood the heavy frost unharmed. The speed of growth of both forms was really good considering that these are still quite small plants (30 cm high). The green one in the open ground threw up 2 new leaves and to my astonishment the one in the tub four. But this was no match for the blue form (in a tub also) which threw up 6 new fans. This is outside, not in the greenhouse! So especially considering the speed of growth the blue form is indeed very interesting and I think the last words about its tenderness are not yet spoken. There are too many uncertain factors as humidity and the weakening due to the bugs, though there is no doubt that the green form is tougher, but on the other hand also slower growing. Evidently - at least from my point of view - plants that are raised in heated greenhouses are more feeble than their counterparts being brought up outside, but it is certainly a problem to grow plants below a certain size outside.

Serenoa repens plays in the same league as Nannorrhops and Rhapidophyllum and thus unfolded 3 new fans at each stem. This plant is also some 30 - 40 cm high. Undoubtedly the slowest grower of all was Sabal minor which only produced one new fan. Admittedly I had to replant it twice because of certain circumstances but even so, the growth rate was really slow. Once settled in it may produce 3 - 4 or 5 fans in later years but I don't think I can expect more. But the Sabal minor did have one big surprise for me. One of the Sabal's heart rotted away and I pulled it out. There was nothing left except a big empty hole in the middle. I wanted to throw it away, but fortunately I didn't. Only some 3 weeks later a new fan began to move up. So don't give a Sabal minor up for dead too soon especially as its growth point lies below the surface. This special characteristic also enables this palm to survive incredible low temperatures down to -30°C at least according to an article in the 'Hardy Palm International' where it was reported that Sabal minor in Tennessee survived -24°F(-29°C). Of course the palms were completely defoliated. What was also mentioned there was that the fans of Rhapidophyllum hystrix can survive -24°C without damage and they must know what they are talking about because the south-east of the States is this hardy palm's habitat, Even the small plants or shall I say seedlings of Trachycarpus takil grew very fast and threw up 6 leaves on average and the faster ones even eight. I have now 11 T. takil seedlings and I want to buy a lot more in spring and try to raise them outside together with a lot of Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera' and Trachycarpus sikkimensis seedlings. Hopefully the blue Chamaerops will be a little hardier than its green and blue-green relatives as it grows in cooler locations and has to tolerate quite severe winter weather. I know that in the UK Chamaerops is quite hardy but even here in the mildest regions of Austria I wouldn't dare plant one out. Not so with the blue ones as they might even reach the hardiness of Trachycarpus fortunei. We will see what the future brings. It would be an ideal palm especially in very windy places as it tolerates stronger winds than a Trachy.

Just a word now about the toughness of T. takil. As even T. fortunei withstands -17°C here at my home without or with only minor damage I suppose that a T. fortunei with a blanket wrapped around it and with the roots sheltered would survive at least -20°C or maybe more (at this point luck becomes an important factor) . Therefore I assume that T. takil would be undamaged down to -l8° or -20°C and survive even much lower temperatures. But who knows if it will ever become that cold again in our lifetime as winters like 1985 occur only every 50 years normally.

Another extremely worthy addition to my palm collection this autumn were two rather large Jubaea chilensis. Not really cheap admittedly but worth every penny. They are about 80 cm in height, but how strong and healthy they look. Wow!! Even a heavy snowfall couldn't harm their leaves when I left them outside in November. They will be planted in the open ground in about a month together with the new large Rhapidophyllums. Good news I also heard from Tobias Spanner about their frost-tolerance. He expects them to be as hardy as Trachycarpus fortunei and told me that in France they survived almost -20°C undamaged. Of course small plants are not that tough in the first years, but they shouldn't have any trouble with -12°C, maybe -15°C. Jubaea was always considered to be the slowest growing of all palm trees, but when planted out it can achieve a quite moderate growth rate. The problem is that it slows down its growth when you leave it in a pot as soon as the roots reach the bottom. Its roots should not be hindered, and allowed to develop freely. Jubaea can well cope with moisture, drought, snow, strong winds, and grows also in cooler climates happily and therefore is really an excellent palm for a variety of climates. Besides, it's really impressive and very different from a Trachy. It's probably the only really hardy feather-leaved palm.

The Musa basjoos I planted grew extremely fast. They really shoot up to the sky. I bought a couple of them from Tobias and we had to saw them off in the middle in order to fit them in the car. After 5 hours' drive they had already grown between 5 and 10 cm out of where they were sawn off, despite they had no soil and no water at their base because they were not pot grown and therefore had to be dug out. But one important fact I found out about the Musa basjoo, namely too much water does not contribute to their well-being. I watered some of them 3 times a day and this seems to have led to a complete standstill in growth. Watering them once on a hot summer day was enough and they had no problems when they had no water for some days and continued growing as strongly as ever. In the 'Hardy Palm International' also some hardy edible bananas were mentioned which endured -16°C unprotected. Can that be true? Why not, I won't be surprised by a single exotic hardy plant any more. I've learned my Meran-lessons. What happened to the supposedly hardy banana our editor mentioned once briefly in his Asia diary (issue 18, 29th October)?

There is one more thing I have to mention, because it was the most incredible palm-thing that happened to me this winter. Together with the blue Nannorrhops I mentioned before I also put outside a Brahea armata seedling, which was also heavily attacked by bugs. There was nothing to lose any more and so I took the risk. The only thing I had to lose was a bug eaten seedling, not a 20m Jubaea. Of course I didn't expect it to survive, but it turned out that it was not even damaged by 2 hours of -11°C to -14°C. Then I left it outside for over a day in permanent frost and it was still not harmed. Now I look with more appreciation at this Brahea armata seedling.

Unfortunately I've lost the Butia capitata I mentioned in my last article but not due to frost but due to root rot. What I didn't know was that below the surface a clay layer prevented the water from running off and that caused the whole nuisance. The frost itself didn't harm this palm as until May there were no signs of damage visible and it thrived very well. I guess the combination of the clay-layer problem and the abnormally high precipitation it received last spring were fatal for this palm. Well, failures are also part of our hobby.

The palms in the front garden I planted just a week after my first article (I mentioned them briefly) really serve to spread the word about palms because many people stop to watch what the hell this is and also some of them ask me if they are also able to plant palms in their own garden. Especially now in the midst of the winter some people incredulously rub their eyes when they pass by at some -10°C or maybe even less. This can really stretch your mind when you see it for the first time.

Well, that's the Story So Far. Many other parts of Europe are having a pretty bad winter and I'm sure a lot of interesting stories are awaiting us. You just have to write them.

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