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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.