Costa del Chamaerops

The result of a 10 year amateur study undertaken by Dr Butler along the Costa Blanca in Spain. Fascinating and well researched, brilliant photographs, including our cover, provided by the author.
by Dr. Neil Buttler, Dorset, UK
Chamaerops No.27 Summer 1997

Pictures, plate 1 to 16: (see text)

I hesitated to write about this much loved and well documented plant because of the risk of comments like Not another one . However there are so many rich and varied communities of this plant, (known commonly as palmito or locally as margallo) in this area that the risk is worth taking. In the tourist sense Costa Blanca refers to the coastline of Spain. Chamaerops is regarded as a coastal plant but it does extend inland for considerable distances where suitable habitats are found. This article is about my observations along the coastal zone of the province extending inland up to 30 km. I have made regular botanical forays into the Mediterranean area over the last 40 years. Chamaerops was just one of many interesting plants but its distribution confined to the western Mediterranean was of some interest. This interest became more focused as I spent more time in the Chamaerops zone and over the last ten years my interest has been concentrated in the Alicante Province.

The fate of Chamaerops is very much linked to human activities, sometimes to its advantage and sometimes the reverse. Before humans invaded the Mediterranean, it had its own niche on coastal cliffs and inland where suitable habitats existed within its range. When early man decimated the forests this opened vast new areas that Chamaerops could colonise. It was of course excluded from the areas used for agriculture. Much of the poorer land that was used for subsistence farming for many centuries has been abandoned and Chamaerops has moved in. Such colonisation is very slow. The Province of Alicante has a varied landscape, both mountainous and flat. In the south of the province there are large areas of coastal plains which merge into the inland mountains. Going north the mountain chains curve eastward to the sea to produce the classic sea-cliff habitat for Chamaerops.

The extensive agriculture in the province is on the coastal plains and up the many valleys in the mountain regions. In addition to cereals and vegetables the main crops are citrus fruit, grapes and almonds. In some areas dates and olives are of local importance. Urbanisation is spreading rapidly along the coastal strip and to an increasing number of inland sites. There are currently restrictions on the development of prime agricultural land with the result that urbanisation and industrial developments are increasingly encroaching on Chamaerops habitats.

It is difficult to make a tidy classification of Chamaerops habitats because it is not that sort of plant and the landscape has been in a state of flux for many centuries. Regeneration, evolution and degeneration of plant communities is in progress continually so my observations are only a snapshot in the long history of the vegetation of this area. What makes it particularly interesting is that Chamaerops is such an opportunistic and dynamic plant. The dry grassland communities in the south of the province are different from the communities to the north where there is a much richer flora and the growth is more lush. Although the whole province is drought prone there are often sea mists in the north due to the proximity of high ground to the sea.

For serious Chamaerops watching it is essential to have good field glasses or a manageable telescope to scan the hills and cliffs and to see the distribution in heath lands. At close quarters Chamaerops is very obvious but it soon merges into the landscape to become invisible. Fortunately the leaves reflect the light and the plants stand out dramatically, even at considerable distances, when viewed through field glasses This also holds true, though to a lesser extent, with photographs taken with zoom or telescopic lenses. A good zoom lens is essential and a telescopic camera would be a bonus. Scanning sea cliffs from a boat is very rewarding but the coastal seas can be very treacherous and I would recommend that this is only done with the aid of an experienced local boatman. Large stretches of motorway traverse otherwise undisturbed Chamaerops country and for a passenger this is a useful observation platform. The front seat of a modern coach is ideal.

I will outline the richer communities in the north region and then follow the gradual changes culminating in different communities in the drier southern region. There is a discernible progression of Chamaerops communities starting with the coastal cliffs, a limited zone of coastal shrub leading to a very extensive zone of dense shrubland which tends to thin out towards the inland extremity finishing up with a rocky landscape. This pattern is changing with pine forest regeneration and reverting in other areas as a result of fire. Unfortunately fires have been frequent and extensive during the last few summers, made worse by the persistent drought.

Coastal cliffs

There is usually a zone of very sparse vegetation above the water line that appears to be barren at a distance. Above this zone there are scattered salt tolerant shrubs including Chamaerops which tends to be established in crevices. These are not like manicured garden specimens but are irregular mounds up to about one metre high with an untidy skirt of many years accumulation of dead leaves.

Illustration 1 shows sparse shrubland, rich with Chamaerops, extending some distance from the sea. Much of the rocky coastline was like this before forest regeneration started. This contrasts with the richer shrubland extending to the cliff edge in plate 2 where there is rapid forest regeneration. These locations were only five kilometres apart. The non-rocky coastal cliffs are very barren and I have not seen Chamaerops on these. The Chamaerops illustrated in plate 3 was facing the open sea, but rocky outcrops like this are limited in the province and are mostly located in the northern region. Plate 4 illustrates a field of coastal shrub with abundant Chamaerops just 50 metres back from the edge of the cliffs. The coastal shrub merges rapidly into a very rich and dense shrubland as illustrated in plate 5.

The characteristic dominant plants in this community are the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus) and the kermes oak (Ouercus coccifera) - Chamaerops is almost swamped by this impenetrable shrub and is best seen from an elevated position. This shrub carpet is 1-1.5 metres high and Chamaerops is just visible at the surface. When standing at ground level it is visible only at close range but from an elevated position it is possible to scan the surface and pin-point the distribution. Plate 6 was located 25 metres from No 5 and shows an area that was ravaged by fire two years earlier. Note that Chamaerops had survived the fire and that regeneration of the other plants is proceeding rapidly either from seed or shooting from underground stems. Where forest regeneration is in progress the shrubs now become an under-layer beneath the trees. The growth tends to be more open as the plants stretch towards the light. The clusters of Chamaerops tend also to be open and spindly with petioles more elongated and the pinnae narrower and more pointed (plate 7).

Progressing inland to drier areas the shrubland becomes thinner and more scattered as in plate 8 and grass starts to become an important component of the flora. It is quite difficult at a distance to pin-point the scattered domes of Chamaerops. Progressing further inland and to the southern plains and hills in the south of the province the grasses predominate. The result is scattered grass tussocks with a scattering of small shrubs and domes of Chamaerops. In the hills Chamaerops tends to be confined to hollows and gullies (plate 9) whereas on the flatter land it tends to be uniformly scattered The dark green domes of Chamaerops being quite prominent as in plate 10. It is fascinating to see these areas in the evening as at late dusk the tussock grass tends to fade from sight and you see a greyish landscape dotted with blackish domes. Fascinating, but rather eerie. It is, however, in the rocky hills and mountains that straddle the length and breadth of the province that Chamaerops reigns supreme. As far as I can estimate it probably occurs throughout the whole mountain complex. Assumptions are inevitable as many of the mountain areas are not readily accessible.

Conservation

Although there are conservation pressures in the Province, conservation of the palmito is not an issue because it is widespread and much of the conservation effort is directed towards woodland habitats. There are two National Parks in the Province which are havens for the palmito. The Penon d Ifach at Calpe is a marine national park and includes the community in plate 4. This is unlikely to change much in the foreseeable future. The Montego National Park to the north of Javea extends someway inland and includes a wide spectrum of habitats. This is changing as a result of forest regeneration in parts. There is some human intrusion and it is a high fire risk area so the future of the palmito is unpredictable. In the past Chamaerops was harvested for making crude fabrics and matting using the leaves and fibres. This is a diminishing activity and is no longer a threat. The growing tip was regarded a delicacy. I cannot vouch for the merits of these tips as a food and the past practice of eating these may have been influenced by rumours that these had aphrodisiac properties. Harvesting of these was laborious and resulted in the destruction of the larger central plants in a clump, but the development of suckers would ensure that the plant colony survived. Where land has been cleared for amenity purposes or for establishing fire breaks, regeneration of Chamaerops is often seen as a ring of young suckers. Seedlings and young suckers were very vulnerable to goats but this too is a diminishing risk. The most serious hazards are human activities and fire, although Chamaerops often survives shrubland fires as illustrated in plates 6,11 & 12. Plate 11 was taken one year after a fire. Note the survival of substantial plants of Chamaerops and the regeneration of other plants. The fruit in plate 12 were scorched but on the protected side they were unaffected. This area was a revelation to me as I had passed it frequently during the previous five years and had not noticed any sign of the palmito. After the fire I was amazed to see the healthy clumps of Chamaerops dotted over the bare landscape. This is possibly a situation where Chamaerops benefits from the occasional fire. If this could be established then there would be a case for selected controlled burning of some areas as part of a conservation programme.

The consequences of fire in woodland areas are quite different. The conflagration and heat are more intense and I have seen burnt-out woodland areas where it has been several years before any green plants re-appeared. Urbanisation is a serious threat to Palmito Land as it is often regarded as waste land and planning permission is more readily given for such land to be used for industrial developments, urbanisation, roads and the occasional airport, stone quarry or theme park. The housing developments are usually for holiday homes or houses for the vast number of Northern Europeans who are migrating to this warm and beautiful land.

Open and lay the cover of this issue flat and take in this beautiful vista. It was a balmy September afternoon, the thyme was in bloom and the air was fragrant with a mixture of thyme, rosemary and a host of other aromatic plants. That was the dream. The reality is that this area has been marked off for housing development. This project has been suspended for legal reasons but I fear this will only be a temporary respite. There are many good examples in some areas where the owners of new houses have retained plants of the palmito that were growing on their plots and developing their gardens around them as seen in plates 13 and 14. This often results from people following the example set by an imaginative neighbour. There are a number of other plants growing in the palmito shrubland that can be absorbed into a garden. Those with larger gardens will sometimes leave a corner wild . This is a practice that should be encouraged. It could he made a condition of planning permission; such protection is often given to mature trees. For the health of the vegetation of the future it is important to give protection to younger trees and shrubs also. There is currently strong legislation in place to protect the coastal zone so the encroachment of houses into coastal Chamaerops Land as illustrated in plate 4 should be reduced in the future. In the mountain areas the palmito is relatively safe from human interference and will survive and flourish into the future providing there is no geological disaster that engulfs the whole area.

Gardens

Regardless of how it fares in the wild Chamaerops will continue to flourish in gardens not only in the Costa Blanca but throughout the world. In the Costa Blanca there are many stunning examples of this lovely plant both in civic settings and private gardens small or large. I have scrutinised hundreds of gardens associated with newer houses in the area and approximately one in three have one or more examples of palmito either as a single dressed plant or a natural colony.

There are local variations depending on availability and the age of the development. Areas of slower development tend to be the richer in Chamaerops as newcomers are influenced by existing gardens whereas in a completely new isolated development there is still the strong influence of the gardens people left behind in their country of origin.

Chamaerops does not transplant readily from the wild and even planting out pot reared plants can be a failure. I have no doubt that in the past large specimens were taken from the wild. These were valuable plants and great care would have been taken in their recovery. Large plants are now rare in the wild, or at least in areas accessible to an ageing botanist. Examples of current prices for nursery grown plants are: Five years from seed 25 ecu; large plant group 500 - 800 ecu (1 metre trunk with ring of satellites). These larger plants take anything up to fifty years to grow. Investing for the future like that is a thing of the past but was once typical of family businesses.

Under nursery conditions cleaned seeds of Chamaerops germinate fairly rapidly but whole fruit germinate more slowly and the germination rate is usually such lower. Fruit planted in a garden can take several years to germinate. Examples of garden-grown fruit after twenty five years have reached the size of seven year nursery grown plants. The garden grown tend to be more robust.

Studies on growth rate in the wild are projects only for the young. In spite of this I have some germination and growth trials in progress. Under propagation conditions germination of fresh seed can be as quick as six weeks but I know of plantings of fruits in unattended gardens that have taken up to three years to germinate. Chamaerops is such a versatile plant and is suitable for everything from a patio pot to a grand garden. Newcomers tend to buy Phoenix because they are cheaper and grow faster only to find their limited space has been swamped. There are so many wonderful examples to be found where the architectural qualities of Chamaerops have been brought out in civic plantings and to set off new buildings. Sometimes the palmito forms a perfect interface between old and new buildings. I have chosen just two out of my many favourite examples. Plate 15 shows the palmito as a pampered aristocrat but on the hillside in the background its stunted cousins are struggling to survive. Plate 16 needs no explanation.

Some thoughts

In the view of Dario Peso (Chamaerops no.16) the palmito has been absorbed into the culture of Italy. I understand that view having seen so many examples of the imaginative use of this beautiful plant in gardens and cities in that country. I have not sensed a similar feeling in the Costa Blanca. I have observed that the older generation of country people talk with some affection, or perhaps nostalgia of how the plant was used in the past and that the younger generation were well informed. As far as I could ascertain the palmito was not used in religious festivals such as Palm Sunday. The more flamboyant Phoenix is used in these festivals. After all the presence of Phoenix in Spain pre-dates the advent of Christianity.

The palmito is widely grown in city and urban areas and there are countless beautiful examples of this lovely plant. To me this indicates that the local town planners, architects and adventurous garden designers have an understanding and feel for the virtues and qualities of the palmito. The visitor to the Costa Blanca takes away enduring memories of the stately palms seen in abundance in the cities, resorts and gardens. A small clump of palmito struggling to survive by the roadside is not seen as they speed by. The more flamboyant palms perhaps reflect to some extent the exuberance, imagination and flamboyance which is part of the heart of Spain. In my opinion Chamaerops is more a reflection of the soul of Spain.

The future

In the Costa Blanca this tough little plant is holding its own against the forces of nature and the onslaught of human activity. I hope in ten years I can give an up-date on how it is making out. My prediction is that it will still he winning, and I would go as far as predicting it will still be holding its own at the end of the next millennium.

Millennium postscript

I suggest that in the year 2000 a Millennium Chamaerops Symposium is held. The object being to establish the current state of knowledge and to establish guidelines for an on-going, co-ordinated research programme in all the countries where Chamaerops grows naturally. I suggest the E.P.S. invites Universities and Botanical Societies of all the Chamaerops countries to form an organising committee to bring this about. Obviously my choice of venue would be Alicante or Valencia.

 

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