Jubaea Jaunt

Join Steve on a whistle stop tour of some of the biggest denizens of the palm world. They're big, they're bold, they're beautiful AND they're cold hardy. Every garden should have one. Or 6.
Steve Swinscoe, Manatte, 32460, Le Houga, France
Chamaerops No.28 Autumn 1997

Jubaea chilensis in San Diego, USA

The truth is out! Now that Martin has put it down in black and white I can't deny it. I do have a thing about Jubaea but then, permit me to explain. Prior to moving to Gascony in southwestern France 20 years ago I grew coconut palms in my garden in Hollywood (Florida, that is, between Miami and Fort Lauderdale - even in California coconut palms won't grow). Since then I've grown Trachycarpus in the land of musketeers while dreaming nostalgically about my beloved coconut palms.

Back in 1985, when most of Europe experienced the winter of the century, southwestern France was no exception. As an example, at that time I had 8 Trachycarpus and when temperatures dipped down to -18 I lost 4 of them. I had often admired Phoenix palms growing in the Basque town of Hendaye, on the French/Spanish border, 90 miles due southwest of my home. When spring rolled around I went to see how the palms had fared. All the fronds of all the Phoenix were burned and brown and they looked quite dead (the good news was that they all survived and continue to flourish, despite temperatures down to -13 that terrible winter) But . . . I came across a majestic palm planted in a place of honor in the middle of a roundabout, facing the old casino on the beach.

This palm was as green and beautiful as if it had spent the winter in the tropics. What could it be? I had to find out. I bought myself a copy of McCurrach's now out of print classic, Palms of the World, and sure enough, there it was, Jubaea spectabilis, as it used to be called, reputedly the most cold hardy of all the feather-leaved palms. I had to find out more and my quest to learn everything I can about Jubaea continues. To add to its mystique the French call the Jubaea "cocotier du Chili" (coconut palm of Chile) and the seeds really are miniature coconuts. The best part is I can grow them outdoors in Gascony!

Now it's one thing to read about palms but it's even better to go see them where they grow and in the last 10 years I've made some great trips scouting for Jubaea I've seen and photographed them all over France, from Brittany to Basque country and all along the Mediterranean, from the Spanish to the Italian borders. I've seen them in England, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Switzerland, and also in California, where I lived as a teenager. I invite you to come with me on a tour of some exceptional specimens.

What is the tallest plant growing under glass anywhere in the world? You guessed it, an impressive specimen of Jubaea growing in the temperate house at Kew, in the London suburbs. Originally planted in the palm house, it was moved twice, the last time in 1938 when it weighed 54 tons. It flowers and sets viable seed annually. The only problem is the fronds now touch the top of the greenhouse at over 18 meters. Perhaps an opening should be made in the glass so it can pop its palmy head through and brave London's winters. Any other suggestions? Back in 1986 the Queen herself planted a young Jubaea across the walkway from the venerable ancestor, planning for the future! Note also that two small Jubaeas have been planted a meter apart outdoors at one of the entrances to the palm house. Rendezvous in 100 years to see how they will have fared.

Seeing palms under glass is nice but they can't compare with others grown outdoors. One, or is it two impressive Jubaeas grow outdoors in a garden in Torquay, in south west England. They have a curious, upright habit of growth, where the fronds form a sort of feather duster top, as opposed to most specimens that have a full head of fronds drooping right down to the trunk. Both of these forms (varieties?) are to be seen in the wild in Chile.

Here in France Jubaea was planted widely over a century ago, only to be almost forgotten when Phoenix canariensis was introduced, whose rapid growth accompanied by early and profuse seed production made it the preferred feather-leaved palm of nurserymen. The famous French botanist Charles Naudin, the "father" of Jubaea in France, imported seeds from Chile almost 140 years ago and encouraged plant lovers at that time, through his articles in "La Revue Horticole", to plant this species which he predicted would one day be the king of palms in France. Jubaea palms, with their massive, clean, straight trunks, are definitely regal. The gardens of the Villa Thuret in Antibes boast over 10 specimens of different sizes, among the most beautiful I've ever seen and believe me, I've seen lots!

The Ecole Nationale Supeneure d'Agriculture in Montpellier also boasts 10 Jubaea, which have resisted temperature drops as low as -16C on several occasions, more proof that these are special palms. Perhaps the most exceptional plantation in France is at the Domaine de La Fosseille, near Perpignan, where a row of 7 palms grow, all perfect and loaded with fruit. Elsewhere in France adult specimens grow near the coasts of Brittany and in the southwest, in Biarritz and also 80 km from the Atlantic in Bearn, facing the Pyrenees, where they must feel right at home remembering the Andes their ancestors gazed upon.

I've admired Jubaea growing in public and private gardens in Lisbon and Sintra in Portugal and in Italy, in the cities of San Remo, Genoa and Montecatini in Tuscany. I learned recently that 2 grow in the botanical garden of Pisa, another claim to fame besides the leaning tower and I understand it gets quite cold in Pisa. Perhaps the tallest specimen in Europe grows on the island of Isola Madre in Lake Maggiore. A well-documented palm, the seed was planted in 1858 and by 1901 the palm measured 10 m. and in turn bore its first crop of seeds, a gorgeous specimen I have yet to see in person.

Jubaeas are grown in gardens in Spain as well, including those of Blanès and Malaga. The botanical garden of La Orotava in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, Canary Islands, has an ancient Jubaea this is the only place I know where both Jubaea and Cocos nucifera thrive, but that's another story.

When you think of Switzerland you probably picture mountains covered with snow, right? How about palm trees with a spectacular backdrop of snow-capped mountains? Locarno is the place and it abounds in palms, especially Trachycarpus with clean trunks, but also Brabea, Butia and, of course, Jubaea. Hats off to the city of Locarno that spent a fortune in 1989 to move a Jubaea 50 m. to create a parking lot (see Chamaerops, July 1992. That transplantation was a success and the Jubaea thrives in its new location.

Leave it to my fellow American to do things in a big way! In San Diego, California, the city, with encouragement from members of the Southern California Palm Society, has planted a Jubaea jungle. It looks like they purchased e v e r y Jubaea they could get their hands on and planted 36 in all, from less than 2 m. in height to over 4 m.. The oldest are bearing fruit and I could just touch the seeds on their infuctesences, the promise of future Jubaeas and more palm gardens. This is probably the most massive planting of Jubaea in one place outside of Chile.

The relative rarity of Jubaea combined with its many qualities, only add to its desirability. Last year the French association, Fous de Palmiers, launched a campaign to plant Jubaea We encourage all palm fans, as Charles Naudin did over 100 years ago, to plant Jubaea Each palm is a spectacular, living monument and a testimonial to future generations of our love for palms.

Steve Swinscoe is President of the "Fous de Palmiers"


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