The Phenomenon of the Forking Phoenix

While on holiday Richard is wont to keep an eye open for palmy peculiarities. This one was waiting for him outside his hotel.
Richard Darlow, 106 Vaughan Road, Barnsley, UK
Chamaerops No.23, Summer Edition 1996

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Photo: Forking Phoenix, Puerto Banus, Spain

How many species of palm naturally branch? Very few you will say. Hyphaene species are probably the best known, Their slim trunks eventually forking repeatedly to form a dense crown, very much in the same manner as Cordyline australis, Then there's Phoenix dactylifera. Phoenix dactylifera? Whoever heard of a branching Phoenix dactylifera? Suckers? yes, branches? no. Well actually, branches? yes also. We all know that this species produces an abundance of suckers if left to its own devices. The branching phenomenon is quite rarethough.

In the Spanish garden Huerto del Cura at Elche, there are two famous old branched specimens of Phoenix dactylifera. each quite different in appearance. This garden started life as a date palm grove in the manner introduced to Spain by the Arabs, Traditionally, other crops were grown amongst the palms because they yielded a greater return. In 1843, a date palm germinated among the palms, pomegranates and artichokes, After thirty years, the palm (a male) began to produce shoots around its trunk approximately 2 metres above the ground. The shoots (seven in all) grew outwards at right angles to the trunk.

Later, each shoot turned 90° and began to grow vertically upwards, parallel to the main trunk. Now, 120 years later, the tree consists of seven trunks encircling the main central trunk like a three dimensional candelabra! A substantial metal support props up each 'branch' while guy wires, attached to metal collars higher up each trunk provide additional stability. This specimen was named Palmera Imperial following a visit to the garden by the Sovereign in 1894.

The other branched Phoenix .at Huerta del Cura is located in the Cactus garden. This tree has a very thick trunk which forks and divides into 6 or 7 branches, again from a point well above the ground. The branches radiate upwards and outwards and the foliage therefore creates a very broad canopy. The whole tree looks very short and squat and is probably like no other date palm you know. Both specimens are visually exciting and fascinating but cannot really be described as beautiful.

I have not yet had an opportunity to visit the Huerto del Cura but recently spent a holiday in Andalucia in the resort of Puerto Banus. On the last day of the holiday, I spent some time photographing palms and other exotics in some of the villa gardens around the hotel. Imagine my surprise and delight when I suddenly realised that one of the many Phoenix dactylifera I was gazing up at, had a multiple head!

The top of the trunk had quite recently divided into 4 or 5 individual heads. I had to zoom in closer with the camera in order to confirm what my eyes were seeing. The resulting photo is reproduced here, What makes it more unbelievable is the fact that this tree is literally across the road from our hotel and I hadn't spotted it until the last day! I suspect now, having seen this specimen, that there are quite a few more of these botanical freaks.

Interestingly, the ones mentioned in this article are all in Spain. Does the Sparish climate/ soil have a monopoly of producing branched date palms? Perhaps one of our Sparish members has more to tell us on this subject. I would certainly be interested to know if any members have spotted a multiple branched/headed date palm while on their Palm travels.

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