I Was In Hawaii, But My Palms Were Here

A follow up to Robert's popular and well researched 'Palms in Austria' . Here Robert picks up where he left off with a second practical guide to growing palms in a cool climate.
Robert Lackner, 2405 Bad Deutch Altenburg, Feldstrasse 48, Austria
Chamaerops No.24, Autumn Edition 1996

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Photos: Happy survivors. Top: Jubaea. Bottom: T. wagnerianus

Writing my last article (issue 21) in mid January I yearned for a warm February and thought the worst of winter were over. How wrong I was with my assumption ! What seemed to be just a cold winter turned out to be this century's longest. Whereas Austria's western provinces experienced a fairly mild winter the eastern sections especially were hit badly. True, the temperatures did not reach the extremes of 1985 but on average the mean winter temperatures were comparable. Also the amount of snow was out of the ordinary. The first snow that winter already occurred on November 3rd - a bit of a surprise after a very warm October with up to 27°C and sunshine throughout the whole month. The last snowfall hit us on April 7th with 10 inches of snow and -3°C !! In between we had about 100 days with frost, 50 days during which the highs also remained below freezing. The longest consecutive frost period lasted 34 days. All in all we had about 50 (!!) days with snowfall and sometimes the snowdrifts reached staggering depths of between 2 and 4 meters. This is incredible for a dry area. You just had to mention the word snow and everyone was looking daggers at you. Apart from that after a S month winter most people scowled at every single snowflake. In my garden I measured the following extremes:

December 29th: -17°C
December 30th: -14°C
January 4th: -15°C
January 30th: -17°C
January 31st: -19°C
February 6th: -13°C
February 7th: -14°C
February 9th: -15°C

Luckily I could escape to Hawaii and California in late winter and perhaps also my palms would have liked to uproot, enter the aircraft instead of me and leave me back in good old Austria with all the spruces, firs and birches as a well-deserved punishment for growing palms in this country. As though this were not enough, spring was just mediocre, summer rather cool (but still warmer than an average London summer or, say, equally as warm as an average summer in Germany's Rhine valley) . September was the coldest on record (since 1881) and until September, precipitation was also well above normal. Not even the oldest people could recall such a bad year and unless the rest of the year breaks this routine it will be one of the coldest this century around here. Only October has been very sunny and quite mild and now in early November spring seems to have come back with 20°C in the shade. This weekend (November 2nd/3rd) I had breakfast outside wearing no more than shorts. I felt like I was in southern Italy sitting there by the palms swaying in the gentle breeze at a quite unusual time of year, and the forecast promises further warm days. The whole year is somehow messed up and those few days don't make up for the rest of the year.

But despite all these burdens this year has brought many interesting facts. Most unprotected Trachycarpus defoliated this winter but refoliated quickly and I didn't lose a single unprotected Trachycarpus fortunei not even a 12 inch tall specimen. However two Trachys protected by means of blankets wrapped around them succumbed. They did not freeze to death as you might guess (the fans were only partly damaged) but rotted in the centre. Obviously too much moisture accumulated inside the blanket. This pointed out clearly what we all know, namely how important it is to keep palms dry in winter. Surprisingly the unprotected palms didn't rot though they were exposed to moisture, snow and frost for S months. My largest Trachycarpus is now about 4 meters high with a trunk height of 2 meters. This is a female plant and produces fruits every year. lt is the only Trachycarpus planted in a sheltered position near the house and also the only one that receives protection by means of a temporary frame erected around it. No additional heat is added to it and despite that it suffered not even minimal damage this winter. As I'm quite often in northern Italy I frequently have a chat with local gardeners. Even in northern Italy it can become pretty chilly and in Udine, for example, they provide shelter for their smaller specimens of Trachycarpus by means of a very simple method. "Solo legare" I was often told was their secret of protecting the palms during icey cold periods. When the temperature drops below -15°C they wrap all the leaves extremely tightly together so that the outer fans provide shelter for the palm's centre. To the innocent palm lover fettering the palm's fans to a cylinder of approximately 15 to 20 cm (6-8") seems like maltreatment. Curiously if performed professionally the leaves won't be damaged by and large, and additionally this method is very easily attachable and effective. lt prevents water from getting into the palm heart, the leaves from being bent during heavy snowfalls and protects the palm from winter. No material but a strong cord is necessary. Nonetheless it is important to remove this shelter in mild periods. The coming winter I'll protect all my Trachy as described here, even though a temporarily erected cold frame is probably the best protection, but hardly feasible unless you house only a few small palms.

Udine's lows are on an average considerably milder than ours, but minimum temperatures of -10°C occur in many years. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered in the midst of winter a 2 meter specimen of Phoenix canariensis and a 6 meter, multi-trunked Phoenix dactylifera. Despite daily highs around freezing in early March both plants looked just wonderful and received no more protection than having their leaves tied up together. However I did discover that these trees were planted after 1985's record freeze when -22°C occurred in this region. lt is a great pity that we have so few members from northern Italy; their knowledge about exotic plants in cool climates would be useful to us all.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me last winter was that my two unprotected Fatsia japonica sailed through the winter just looking fabulous and are flowering now in early November. I didn't expect these plants to survive a winter like this not to mention that they were not even damaged. But since then I have seeii another two large and unprotected Fatsia in my area growing outside. The owner of one of these was just too lazy to carry them in and out every winter and therefore planted them in the ground. Now they measure about 120cm (4 feet). Fellow palmist Michael Scherhaufer (also from eastern Austria) recently showed me a specimen happily growing outside in Vienna. lt has already reached an astounding height of some 2.5m (8 feet), a width of about 1.5m and was flowering freely in late October. Obviously (in common with so many other exotics) Fatsia is a lot tougher than literature indicates; most books consider it hardy to only -12°C.

Also Cupressus sempervirens and Aucuba japonica were doing just great. The Italian Cypresses grow in a very exposed place and do not receive any protection at all. Nevertheless they had no problems with this year's deep freeze and thrive vigorously. This year I saw many Aucubas planted out in an alpine valley which is certainly far colder than our region. If you live in a region too cold for any palms why not try these plants ? Cypresses especially add a Mediterranean feeling of warmth to every garden. Unprotected Araucana araucana (Monkey Puzzle Tree) in our area were also not harmed and hence I conclude they are also quite suitable for rather cold areas. Only the youngest plants will need protection during severe winter days.

Last summer I came across huge plants of Magnolia grandiflora in Vienna. These were big trees with thick trunks. According to the owner he lost some smaller plants of these in previous years but those which established are now about 20 years old and have even endured 1985's record freeze with -26°C at his location. They lost all their foliage but pulled through, he told me. I never considered it possible that Magnolia grandiflora could cope with such temperatures. Last winter they suffered no damage at all. The Magnolia in my garden lost about 70% of its foliage this winter but had no problems to survive and added a lot of new leaves in rapid succession. I was really enchanted with two rather large trees of Albizia julibrissin I discovered in July. Though they are not protected they don't seem to suffer any harm in winter.

Of my palms Rhapidophyllum hystrix seems to be the only American ultra-hardy capable of sustaining exceptionally cold and long winters like this. Even this year my two large clumps produced 3 new fans per stem, both plants were flowering and the female plant carries a lot of fruits, which even seem to ripen. On the other hand a lightly sheltered Serenoa repens and a unprotected Sabal minor did not withstand the winter's freak conditions. Apparently Sabal minor tolerates very low temperatures but not for such long periods. However with these two species it seems to be important where they originate from and therefore I'll continue my experiments, especially with Sabal. Nannorrhops ritchiana is still a dubious proportion. The silverblue form is undoubtedly not hardy enough to withstand our worst winters. Even the last plant in our area, which belonged to a friend of mine, succumbed in late winter. My green Nanny survived the winter outside but defoliated completelv. This caused a curious effect, because it is now regrowing two growing points. But this winter showed clearly that it makes no sense to grow any small palms outside. Therefore I dug up my green Nanny in summer and brought it inside to raise it to a reasonable size before I plant it out again. At least the result was that Nannorrhops can survive even as a small plant quite severe winter weather, but I'm still not quite sure if large plants can avoid defoliation at temperatures close to -20°C in areas with high humidity in winter. Hopefully it will turn out that somewhat larger plants will not lose their fans, if not it can't be considered garden-worthy because it is regrowing too slowly to become a beautiful plant within a year again. The largest (green) Nanny I have at the moment measures now 50 cm and I'll not plant out this one before it has reached 70 to 80 cm in height.

Answering a letter in the Letters Page (issue 23) our Editor stated that Trachycarpus takil is likely to be somewhat hardier than its popular and widespread cousin, the Chusan palm. This seems to be true as even some seedlings I have endured very low temperatures. Astoundingly Trachycarpus nanus seems to be even hardier than T. takil although in habitat T. takil has according to information from Tobias Spanner to cope with lower temperatures than the Yunnan dwarf palm. Is this due to the fact that T. nanus is a dxvarf palm and that freezes just above the ground surface occur more often than in 2m height ? As I gained this experience just from one plant I considered it to be just a freak of nature, luck or whatever, but Tobias told me he received information from a palmist in the States giving hints that there is more to it than meets the eye. This plantsman left T.takil and T. nanus outside during a severe freeze. Whereas the takils suffered some damage the nanus fared better. Nonetheless this is just a first hint and more facts have to be gathered, particularly as the T.nanus habitat is rather dry. Jon Kenahan's article about his experiences with Brahea armata was exceedingly enjoyable to me and I have been equally surprised about the speed of growth of my Mexican Blue Palm. In early June 1995 I purchased a goodsized 120 cm (4ft) specimen in southern France. The summer 95 was very warm and dry and the Brahea added another new leaf every two weeks during the warmest months. Even during this summer it grew S fans. Next spring I want to plant it permanently in the ground though I'll have to protect it very well in bad winters. Additionally I have some other ambitious plans. This year I want to leave a 120cm (4 ft) Washingtonia filifera and a 2 foot Chamaerops humilis to the elements though the Washingtonia of course not entirely. This Petticoat Palm will be protected by means of tied together fans in the Udine manner, straw and a frame erected around it. I really don't expect it to keep its fans but hopefully the centre spear. If it does it is certainly worth experimenting with as it is fairly cheap, easily obtainable and extremely fast growing thus building a whole new crown during a growing season. All my pot grown palms including Washintonia filifera, Phoenix canariensis and Brahea armata have experienced -6°C and snowfall outside a couple of times and none of them suffered any harm. Hence I consider it possible that a Washingtonia can survive average winters around here though in a winter like the last it'll probably be at its frost-wit's end unless it can be heated during the coldest periods. Depending on the result of the coming winter I want to plant out large plants of Butia capitata (2 in), Chamaerops humilis (1,5 m) and some smaller specimen of Phoenix canariensis (1 m) and Trachycarpus martianus (50 cm) . Perhaps these palms will be joined by a Sabal uresana (4 feet), which I want to buy soon. According to information from the south east of the States S. uresana seedlings fared much better during severe freezes than S. palmetto of the same size. But probably I'll raise it in the greenhouse for the first few years. All these palms will be sheltered by means of a large canopy, which will be well insulated against cold.

In my last article I reported about Yucca gloriosa growing in our area. Knowing what I know now these plants aren't Yucca gloriosa but are just sold as such in most parts of Europe and are even described as these in most books. That truly is a problem with any plant but a very big one with Yuccas. - The gardeners are spouting botanical Latin but unfortunately the wrong names and unless you're well informed you have to believe it. Actually these plants seem to be Yucca X floribunda also a trunk forming species but less impressive thass real Yucca gloriosa. Luckily I found this summer in Italy the real stuff (Yucca gloriosa), because I've never seen them for sale anywhere before. I'll plant them out next year and hope they'll be equally tolerant as their misnamed relatives.

Another mistake crept into my last article. Of course 12°C is Meran's mean annual temperature, not the mean winter temperature. Probably a deliberate mistake of our Editor's scanner software. No big thing, I just wanted to prevent anybody from moving to this location due to falsified meteorological data.

I hope this information will help all society members living in not so favoured areas and I'd be delighted if some of you contact me personally and send me a brief letter or ring me up sometime. Some members from Austria and Germany already did this and hopefully I'll receive also letters from other countries. Have a mild winter folks!

Ciao.

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