Palms Of Provence Côte d'Azur

Alain, a Marseille dentist, describes the fascination of the palms that grow so well on his stretch of the Cote d'Azur in France
Alain Levy, Villa 'Or-Aviv', 'La Montezane', 42 Bd. Fernand Durbec, 13013 Marseille, France.
Chamaerops No.25 Winter 1996/97

I became a palm enthusiast when I was only 11 years old (now I am 37) when my parents decided to leave Paris and settle in Cannes. Since this time I have been very happy to live in 'Provence Cote d'Azur' - the French Riviera - with plenty of palms in private and public gardens. and along the avenues. When I became a dental surgeon I decided to stay in the region and opened my dental surgery in Marseille City.

Here we have a very sunny and mild climate with very hot. long and dry summers with the temperature over 30-33ūC during several weeks. The winters are dry and mild but we do have cold days when the 'Mistral' blows, a strong and cool wind from the north of Rhine River Valley. Only rarely do we have any days with the temperatures below 0ūC (-2ūC -5ūC) and even then, it's only during the very early hours; during the rest of the day the temperature is almost never below +6ūC or +8ūC.

The best thing about this Mediterranean climate is the sunshine, bright and of long duration (more than 2500 hours annually). Rainfall in both summer and winter is poor (autumn is the real rainy season), we have a lot of wind in spring, and the atmosphere is dry. With such a benign climate we can plant out of doors at least 40 species of palms! The most common in Marseille are certainly Washingtonia (both species), Phoenix canariensis, Chamaerops humilis Brahea, Butia, and Trachycarpus, but in reality a lot of other species could be planted outdoors without any risk, such as livistona Sabal, Jubaea Serenoa ; their only disadvantage is their price in the palm-nurseries! Compared with much of Europe, 'Provence Cote d'Azur' is really a paradise for palm planting and for palm enthusiasts.

In reality, we are just as concerned with the cold-hardiness of palms, the only difference is that the palms concerned are not Phoenix, Butia, Brahea and Chamaerops, which grow very well outdoors in Provence, but Syagrus, Archontophoenix, Howea, Caryota and Rhopalostylis The problems are the same; only the palms are different. Many French palm enthusiasts have tried to plant these outdoors in a very sheltered spot in gardens of the French Riviera. and it is certainly worth a try.

In my own garden, here in Marseille, I also decided to plant out those same palms, so last April I planted a Syagrus romanzoffiana (2m tall) a very young Archontophoenix cunninghamiana 'Illawarra' and a young Caryota 'Himalaya'. All the other palms in the garden are very hardy here in Marseille and grow to perfection with mulch, water and long sunshine. Today I have about 22 species outdoors.

In the south of France, during the long hot summers, palms need a lot of water to grow well; on the contrary. during winter, I never water them. I noticed that during the cool season the dryness of the soil and of the atmosphere greatly increases the cold-hardiness of massy of the palms (and most of the cycads and cacti).

Never forget that during winter, not only cold, but overall humidity is the worst enemy of palms in case of freezing. During the winter of 1985, many Phoenix died in the Cannes, Nice and Menton areas. but none died in Marseille at the same time. The reason is that in Marseille (and in the rest of Provence) we have a dry Mediterranean climate with poor rainfall and low humidity. But in the rest of the French Riviera. the climate is much more wet and rainy in winter. (Mean annual rainfall in Marseille is below 500mm. but over 900mm in Cannes, Nice and Menton).

In case of very cold winters, palms are much affected by both cold and humidity, and this is often the cause of their death.

One of the few palms that can withstand both cold and humidity is Trachycarpus fortunei (and perhaps Rhapidophyllum hystrix); however this palm probably prefers the climate of the other, cooler regions of France where there is more rainfall, and it doesn't appreciate too much the sun and the dryness Marseille's climate.

On the contrary, Provence is a real paradise for Phormium, Washingtonia Brahea and Butia which do enjoy burning sun in summer. The secret of growing palms well in the south of France is giving them plenty of water in summer, fertilizing them (once in May, once in July with a 30-15-15 fertilizer) and mulching.

Finally, I must tell you that for me, a private garden or a public park without palm or cycad is really sad and unattractive, even if otherwise it is a really nice park! Don't you think that ALL parks would benefit from planting lots of Trachycarpus or Chamaerops? Impossible to imagine? Well don't forget that 3 centuries ago, the French king Louis XW who built Versailles' castle and gardens near the centre of Paris, planted hundreds of Phoenix dactylifera and P. canariensis in pots in Versailles Park. And today you can still see them outdoors in the Orangerie of the castle's park, from May to October.

King Louis XW was certainly a great palm lover, wasn't he? And a good example for us too. Were he still alive I am sure he would be a member of the E. P.S.!


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