Palms in Hungary
Growing palms in the city where the Buda meets
the Pest. Familiar palms, familiar problems, familiar pleasures
Andras Nemenyi, 1118 Budapest, Menesi Ut 73, Hungary
Chamaerops No.29 Winter 1997
A fine collection in the conservatory at Elte Botanical
Palms have been cultivated in Hungary as in most Central
European countries since the Baroque. During the 19th century they
have become favourites as potplants for interior decoration, their
height of fame was at the turn of the century when new conservatories
were built in Botanic Gardens, mansion parks and also glazed balconies,
"winter gardens", as parts of city houses, became fashionable.
Palms were available from growers in a large variety of species
and sizes. An outstanding personality of the time, Archduke Joseph,
was a keen palm collector. His neoclassical conservatory in Alcasút
housed 77 species of palms in 1891 and he tried to introduce some
30 species outdoors in his palace park in former Fiume (Rijeka,
Croatia) on the Adriatic coast. Nowadays the largest palm collection
well worth seeing is the one in the conservatory of ELTE Botanical
Gardens, Budapest. The collection of over 150 taxa includes specimens
as Latania verschaffeltii, Arenga ambong, Guihaia argyrata, Copernicia
fallaense, Coccothrinax species, Cocos nucifera cultivars: "King",
Most people living in the mild western areas of Europe
think Central Europe is too cold for the outdoor cultivation of
palms which is true for most of the region. Hungary can be characterised
as having a transitional climate between the maritime warm temperate
climate of West Europe and the continental climate of East Europe.
The annual precipitation is between 500-900 mm. and the hours of
sunshine are 1700-2100. The mean monthly temperature for the coldest
month, January, is 0 to -4deg. C and for the warmest, July, +19-22deg.
C. The period with median daily (mean of min. and max. temp.) temperatures
above +10deg. C range from the beginning of April until the end
of October. On average, every 10 years there is a severe winter.
The limiting factors of outdoor palm cultivation for
us here are the extent and duration of minimum temperatures each
winter. The main factors influencing our local microclimates in
order of importance are: 1) microtopography 2) level of urbanisation
3) position of the area within the country. Hungary is situated
in a basin almost interlocked by mountain ranges, the Alps in the
west and the horseshoe shaped Carpathians from the north to the
south-east. Plains dominate the landscape to the east, south-east
and hills and mountains to the north-east of the Danube. Here the
mean extreme minimum temperature is between 17 and -20deg. C each
winter and in the far northeast below -20deg. C. A mixture of plains,
low hills and mountains dominate most of the area to the west of
Mainly the west, south-west are milder areas where
the lowest temperature in winter is -15 to I6deg. C on average.
It is here where under favourable microclimates palms can be grown
outdoors. 2) During winter in urban areas heat lost from buildings
warms the adjacent air also buildings block the free movement of
winds (reducing windchill factor). Thus the downtowns can be around
+5 to +8deg. C warmer than the outskirts of cities and towns mainly
during extreme cold weather. 1) Microtopography is an important
factor in landlocked areas like Hungary, influencing the intensity
of solar radiation and temperature. Land on slopes of hills and
mountain sides with south exposition, in heights not over 300m altitude
(a.s.l.) are warmer in spring, autumn and winter compared to adjacent
valleys and plains. This is especially true during winter on slopes
situated at altitudes half way between the valley floor and the
This is where the phenomenon "temperature inversion"
occurs on those clear, still nights, during anticyclonic weather,
when there is snow cover on the ground and heat is lost through
drastic radiation. These are nights dreaded by all "northern
palm enthusiasts" when the extreme low temperatures occur during
winter. The cold air flows down the slopes and accumulates in the
plains, valley floors, where it cools further while the warmer air
layers lie on top of it. Thus the difference between the air temperature
in the valley floor and the middle of the mountain slope can be
around +4 6deg. C and in extreme cases +8-10deg. C. For example
during the abnormally cold weather of January 1997 the minimum temperature
was 22deg. C in the plains and only -13deg. C on the hill slope
100 meters higher in altitude (Tenkes Hill, Siklós-Máriagyúd,
SW Hungary). Usually the colder the temperature cools in the plains
the greater is the difference compared to the mountain side. This
great temperature difference is only apparent under the above weather
When it is cloudy, radiating heat is not freely lost,
so neither does the temperature in the valley floor cool down too
much nor is there great difference compared to the mountainside,
usually +12deg. C, which difference is typical under all weather
conditions during the summer months. This means that on these mountain
slopes the extreme minimum temperatures range between -8 and -14deg.
C. The above topographical characteristics are typical of the historical
wine growing regions along the hillsides of the Northern shores
of Lake Balaton (Badacsony and Tihany), the slopes of the Mecsek
and Villó nyi mountain ranges (above Pócs and Siklós-Máriagyúd,
SW Hungary). Also the slopes in the SW part of Budapest offer similar
conditions. In these regions figs (Ficus carica) have been grown
in gardens for more than a century, also Capressus sempervirens
and an occasional Musa basjoo can also be located.
The first experimental outdoor palm plantings were
done by two dendrologists, Zsolt Debreczy and István Rácz
in the late sixties. They are both recognised for their successful
efforts in introducing and promoting various Mediterranean type
exotic plant taxa (Cupressus, Albizzia, Melia, winter hardy Opuntia,
Yucca species etc.) both in public plantings and among plant enthusiasts.
My interest in palms led me to start collecting them from 1983 and
to become a member of the IPS in 1985. Continuing where the two
dendrologists left off, I have convinced some public gardens to
plant outdoors some or more cold hardy palms since 1986. Over the
years the most important thing I realised was that I should always
consider what is best for my palms and that I have to accept reality.
As I had no conservatory to grow my palms to perfection, I donated
my collection of over 200 taxa to ELTE Botanical Gardens, Budapest
in 1991. Since then I have focused my practical interest on growing
the few cold hardy species in my garden in SW Hungary. The first
palm species tried out-of-doors and the one which is most adaptable
under our climate is Trachycarpus fortunei. Larger, between 1620
years old, 3-4m high flowering specimens of which can be seen in
the ELTE Botanical Gardens, the Buda Arboretum of the University
of Horticulture and Food Industry, the 'Varga Márton' Horticultural
Secondary School in Budapest and the Botanical Garden of the University
of Pécs. Young 34 year old plants produce 3-4, the 8-10 year
old specimens grow 67, while the trunked 1618 year old palms produce
14-18 new leaves per year. Larger specimens from 0.75m trunk height
will flower, and if both male and female plants are present, produce
viable seeds each year.
Other species successfully growing in some public
and private gardens include young specimens of Chamaerops humilis
(the heart of which is very sensitive to precipitation during our
winters), Rhapidophyllum hystrix, Sabal minor (flowering too late
for its seeds to ripen), Trachycarpus wagnerianus T. takil Unfortunately
Trachycarpus martianus (Khasia) defoliates when the first freeze
of -5deg. occurs, so it is too tender for us here. I suspect the
same will apply for T. martianus (Nepal) and even T. latisectus
might not be hardy enough. Nannorrhops ritchiana (Iran seed origin)
is not hardy (its roots easily rot and it grows very slowly).
Probably even specimens from more frost hardy provenance
are more suited to a warmer climate, needing a longer growing season
with higher temperatures than in Hungary. The heart of all the young
palms need to be protected while still trunkless from the snow in
our winters. When maximum daily temperatures range constantly below
+5deg. C and there are several days with clear skies and sunshine
during anticyclonic winter weather, palms like other evergreens
suffer from "photochilling". This means leaves steadily
turn yellow because cold stress is physiologically enhanced by irradiance.
Thus winter protection by totally covering young plants of all species
is beneficial not only in protecting from wind, but also from excess
sunlight. Hopefully in the mildest microclimates palms, with proper
care, will become not a rare sight in gardens with a southern touch.
26-01-21 - 11:20GMT
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