The Wheat and the Chaff
Another visit to Austrian member Robert Lackner's
garden, full of practical information, and first hand knowledge.
Robert Lackner, 2405 Bad Deutsch Altenburg, Feldstrasse 48, Austria
Chamaerops No.30 Spring 1998
A Long Way From Home: Washingtonia robusta in Robert's
garden in Austria.
Have a mild winter folks, I wished you
at the end of my last article (Chamaerops, Autumn 96). Well probably
the Eskimos had one or the people in Brazil. I guess neither were
in need of one, admittedly for different reasons though. What can
be worse than a bad winter, my dear palm fellows? Right, two bad
winters. Last time I reported about one of the coldest and longest
winters in eastern Austria this century. The winter 1995/96 was
certainly a record winter in terms of snowfall and frost duration.
Temperatures fell as low as -19 deg. C, but surprisingly it turned
out this was not the limit for my at-this-time unprotected Trachycarpus.
Well what about it, I thought, bad winters have always
occurred around here. Damage was appraised and new palm replantings
made as everyone was absolutely certain that the winter 95/96 was
an exception and no two such winters can occur in a row. In the
beginning of the winter 96/97 this seemed to be right. November
was just fabulous! Most of the days were warm enough to wear T-shirts,
the warmest temperature was +23 deg. C in the shade and I was able
to have breakfast outside the first three weekends of the month.
It was the first time I erected the frame for my largest Trachycarpus
in shorts! November was like an indemnification for the rest of
the year. Also December started mild with temperatures no lower
than -1 deg. C at night. All my pot grown palms remained outside
until December 20th.
The following day then gave the starting shot to the
coldest winter since the legendary one in 1985. Within one day the
temperature dropped from +5 deg. C to -11 deg. C accompanied with
heavy snowfall. This was the start of an immense frost period. The
temperatures did not rise above freezing until February 4th and
in between we registered the following extremes:
December 27th: min:-18°C max:-14°C
December 28th: min:-22°C!! max:-14°C
December 29th: min:-20°C max:-10°C
December 30th: min:-14°C max:-10°C
December 31st: min:-17°C.
Generally snowfall was rare, but the snow remained
on the ground for more than 5 weeks. The snow was so cold and dry
that it was almost impossible to form a snowball.
On New Year's day a short but heavy snowfall dumped
another 10 inches of snow but also ended the extreme cold with temperatures
thereafter being mostly between -10 deg. C and 0 deg. C. The westernmost
parts of Austria were again spared the worst cold, though normally
eastern Austria is much warmer. But also in other parts of Europe
this winter brought astounding temperatures: Venice shivered at
-9 deg. C and even the lagoons were partly frozen, Rome woke up
to -3 deg. C and Naples to -1 deg. C one morning, Valencia at 0
deg. C. Prague froze solid at -23 deg. C and in Poland many people
froze to death at -37 deg. C in parts of the country.
Luckily this winter didnt make everyone nuts,
because the duration was rather short with the cold staying around
for only 6 weeks. By mid February it was so warm that you could
again walk around in shorts at +21 deg. C in the shade. March began
even warmer. February and March brought 6 weeks of uninterrupted
sunshine and warmth. In late March winter brought the last greetings
with a heavy snowfall followed by -7 deg. C at night after which
it cleared up.
April was rather cool, but May and June were hot and
fabulous as was the whole summer apart from July, which was the
wettest month ever on record here. From late July till November
8th we hardly had any rain. On one hand late October brought some
very unusual heavy night frosts down to -7 deg. C, which happens
probably only once or twice a century here at this time, on the
other hand the first half of November was exceptionally warm. Weve
had a couple of days with more than +20 deg. C herearound, some
towns in Austria registered even +26 deg. C. Even at night temperatures
ranged between +15 deg. C and +20 deg. C. If I had my way it would
last the whole winter and I could replace the Trachys with coconut
palms. But, to be honest, Id rather relinquish plans of a
coconut plantation than dispense with snow. Yes I know, thats
the sick thing about us palm nuts, in the tropics wed probably
try to grow conifers. Apart from that the whole coconut plan took
care of itself with temperatures around zero centigrade now in late
November. Good luck for my Trachys.
Trachycarpus fortunei and wagnerianus - the winners.
Nightmares of palms turning to mush and of thermometers with barely
visible mercury can make a palm enthusiast shudder. This is the
time you wish you were a spruce and birch fan. But whos really
interested in this arctic stuff? Id rather fear for my palms
every winter than plant rows of birches, which will still be safe
at temperatures unknown in my area since the ice age. The same must
hold true for a Texan who sent me an email because he wanted to
know if he could successfully overwinter a coconut palm in his garden
with heating cables. Different latitude, different palm, same problem.
But was this winter a nightmare at all ? I was exceedingly
astounded by the last winters results. I lost only 3 of 13
Trachycarpus (twelve fortunei and one 4 foot wagnerianus). Even
more interesting this may seem when I tell you that none of my palms,
except my largest Trachy, was protected apart from having the leaves
tied up. The largest Trachycarpus was again sheltered with a temporary
frame and inside this frame the mercury did not fall below -18 deg.
C. Therefore it was the only Trachy avoiding complete defoliation,
though most leaves were damaged. All the other Trachys were completely
burnt down to the trunk, but soon began to grow with a sensational
Trachycarpus wagnerianus was no more than a hairy
trunk with a completely brown growing point sticking out. Not a
single leaf survived. Now its gone, I thought,
though I had some hope it might survive, because the heart was quite
solid and did not pull out when I gave it a good tug. Then in March
the record race of my Waggy began. It grew so exceedingly fast I
could hardly believe it and it underwent a metamorphosis from a
stump to a dense leaved palm. Indeed it turned out to be my fastest
growing palm with regard to its size and produced no less than 14
new fans!! (The photo shows the Waggy in summer with 10 leaves).
Only my largest Trachycarpus fortunei fared better and made 17 new
ones, but it is 6 feet taller than my 4 foot Waggy. So forget about
all the stories that want to make you believe that Trachycarpus
wagnerianus is much slower growing and less hardy than its widespread
cousin. Also all the other Trachycarpus grew very well and made
a complete recovery after the winter. One astounding thing is that
10 Trachycarpus fortunei (5 pots with two plants each) which I brought
up from Udine (Italy), seem to be especially hardy. Six of these
have been growing in my garden and four were given away as presents
to relatives. These plants had no winter protection and additionally
were not planted in favoured positions and despite their rather
small size (4 feet) all ten survived without problems. True, they
defoliated completely, but they had the best looking centre spear
of all the Trachys after the winter, because on all plants it was
still green and solid and subsequently these plants made a fast
recovery. Unfortunately these plants are too young (4 feet in height)
to produce fruit yet, but its likely theyll set fruit
in a couple of years. This might bring seeds of very cold hardy
Trachycarpus fortunei, but Ill need a lot of patience until
Rhapidophyllum - the loser. Rhapidophyllum hystrix
was definitely the loser of the year in my garden. Both plants (5
feet) and the aforementioned seedling succumbed this winter, though
they actually looked quite good during the cold snap, but the warmer
it became the more their shape deteriorated only to be absolutely
dead in spring. I dont know why these ultra hardy palms did
not make it, though they are known to cope with even lower temperatures
in climates less benign than ours. Anyway my experiments
with Rhapidophyllum have come to an end now. It is slow growing,
easily tattered by wind and doesnt have too much charm for
a palm. So instead of being plagued with this low clumping palm,
in the future Ill purchase only real palms, like Washingtonia,
Brahea or whatever, and thus invest the amount Ill save in
heating cables and enjoy the charm of a large and fast growing palm.
Washingtonias and heating cables. Last winter
I tried heating cables for the first time. Formerly I was never
really fond of using any kind of heat source to get my palms through
the winter, but then I chanced upon a couple of meters of heating
cable which was used for frost-protection in a loft. The owners
had no use for the cables any more and gave them to me. I had a
4 foot Washingtonia filifera which never really liked the winter
inside the greenhouse. It produced lots of new fronds during the
summer but lost most of these again during the winter. Also my other
Washingtonias in the greenhouse suggest that W. filifera is not
really one of the best greenhouse plants in winter. Whether they
suffer from too much moisture or darkness or whether they lack regular
air circulation or fresh air, I dont know. Those two prerequisites
- gratis heating cables and my filiferas poor greenhouse performance
- were the motivation to plant this palm outside. The trunk of the
Washingtonia was wrapped in fleece and the heating cable around
it. The leaves were tied up, but were not heated and the whole plant
was sheltered by a cold frame. The cables were set to activate at
-5 deg. C and deactivate at 0 deg. C.
Actually I didnt count on the Washingtonias survival
when the mercury plunged mercilessly, because the protection was
in my opinion only sufficient for average winters. The leaves froze
solid, because inside the frame it was just as cold as outside,
but the plant survived this mad winter, though not in a very good
shape, leading to a poor recovery during the summer.
In late February it was joined in the ground by a
10 foot Washingtonia filifera and a 5 foot Washingtonia robusta
beneath (see photo). These plants survived a heavy snowfall in late
March and -7 deg. C at night without a scratch. They remained in
perfect shape even after another two nights with -5 deg. C, though
this is said to be a critical temperature for Washingtonia robusta.
The clue is that it warmed up considerably during the day which
definitely helps palms to survive frosts.
This winter all three Washingtonias will be protected
by means of heating cables and Im sure they have a good chance.
Ill give you a detailed update after the next winter. After
my first trials I can only recommend heating cables. First the heating
costs are exceedingly low compared with other heat sources. I only
needed 50 cents to heat the Washingtonia last winter and also successfully
overwintered a Jubaea with costs of only 20 cents! Secondly they
are easily established and transport the warmth exactly to the points
were it is needed, namely to the palm. And last but not least it
enables you to grow more tender species with a minimum of effort.
Indeed we are not far from a climate which enables us to grow Butia,
Jubaea, Washingtonia, Brahea, Sabal and many, many other relatively
frost hardy palms. In most years just a few nights separate us from
a tropical looking garden. So why not give mother nature a little
leg-up and create the garden youve always dreamt of? Certainly
buying heating cables is less of a large-scale project than moving
to Italy. Heating cables or no, my Trachycarpus will be grown also
in the future without heating cables, whether they like it or not.
Evergreens. It was so cold this winter that
even Aucubuas were damaged to varying degrees, but they resprouted
nicely. However Ive been surprised that all four Fatsia japonica
in my garden came through. Two froze back to the ground the other
two were hardly damaged. Also both Magnolia grandiflora fared very
well, one of these didnt have the slightest problems with
-22 deg. C. Not a single leaf was damaged after the winter, which
was somewhat strange, because last winter it lost most of its leaves
at just -19 deg. C. In summer they flowered for the first time.
Cupressus sempervirens pyramidalis, the
Italian cypresses, were reliable as ever and had no problems with
this severe winter weather, even though they are planted in a very
exposed position and have no shelter. In spring they developed a
light bronze tone which they rapidly overcame with new green.
Bella Italia. Of course I was also in Italy
a couple of times this year and saw a lot of exciting palms. My
first journey led me to Pistoia in mid February. The weather there
was cooler than back home in Austria and it was pouring down with
rain. The Trachycarpus were all in excellent condition, but the
Cycas revolutas looked rather poor. Their leaves were mostly yellow,
but the plants themselves seemed to be fine. I was told that sharp
frosts down to -12 deg. C this winter caused their poor appearance.
Also Udine, which I found out later this year, was not spared by
the cold spell: -14 deg. C was simply too much for the 6 metre Phoenix
dactylifera of which I reported in my last article. But the absolutely
best thing Italy held in store for me this year were two large Jubaea
chilensis which I found in a nursery. I almost couldnt contain
myself when I saw those exceptionally beautiful plants and my only
problem was how to get those huge plants home. No real palm enthusiast
would leave such plants where they are. They were fabulous, the
trunks had a circumference of 85 cm and the total height (without
the pot) exceeded 5 feet (see photo). To find such palms was beyond
my wildest dreams, I had considered it impossible to find such large
Jubaeas anywhere for sale in Europe.
Almost as unbelievable was what the nursery owner
told me. A friend of his who lives in northern Italy possesses a
large Jubaea of seedbearing age with a thick, large trunk. In 1985
this palm allegedly survived -25 deg. C without protection, whereas
all Trachycarpus fortunei in the same garden were killed. He said
the palm defoliated completely, but resumed growth in spring. Obviously
the thick trunk of mature Jubaea can keep off a large extent of
frost from the growing point and certainly frosts in northern Italy
are not as long-lived as here in Austria, but even so it is astounding
and we all know that 1985 brought legendary temperatures to many
parts of Italy. Younger plants however, the nursery owner added,
pointing at the plants I purchased, would endure only
-12 deg. to -15 deg. C. Interestingly most of his Jubaea customers
were not from the milder parts of northern Italy, but from Austria,
Switzerland, South Tyrol and Germany, because they esteem the frost
hardiness of those plants, which is not so much of importance in
Italy, whereby people rather grasp at the much cheaper Phoenix canariensis,
though in my opinion a Phoenix pales beside a Jubaea at any age.
Well, it will be quite a while before my Jubaeas develop
their significant thick trunk, thus Ill carefully protect
them during the most severe freezes, hoping that Ill be able
to eat maybe the first coquito when Im eighty.
Reaching for the fans. Certainly the last two
winters cut us palm freaks down to size. Lets be honest, apart
from 1985 the last 30 years hardly brought cold winters, in many
years snow was becoming a rarity here in Austria. Though it was
quite nice to enjoy spring warmth in winter and to play tennis outside
during these warm winters of the late 80s and early 90s
it was certainly not normal. After a very long absence severe winters
seems to have come back again to Europe. Our goal cannot be to create
a warmer climate which enables us to grow palms (so theres
no necessity to have the car running in the parking lot and push
the greenhouse effect), but should rather aim at raising palms being
capable of enduring our climatic conditions. Seen from this point
of view the last two winters enabled us to separate the chaff from
the wheat, which will bring us closer to growing palms in our countries
even in less favoured climatic periods than the last 30 or 40 years.
Not that mild winters bring the progress the bad winters do. So,
I wish you a severe winter and in doing so, youll probably
have a mild one!
Update After The Winter 1997/98
We had an incredibly mild winter. Very sunny, exceedingly
dry, mostly frost-free and very warm. The highest temperatures in
Austria were +26 deg.C in November, approx. +15 deg.C in December
and January and +23 deg.C in February (all in the shade). Only in
late January we had one lone cold week and on one occasion the temperature
dropped even to -14deg.C But the daily highs rose quickly to around
freezing and the frosts were dry. In fact it was so warm that by
the end of February even cherry and apricot trees were in full flower,
many trees have been showing already small green leaflets and the
violets and magnolias have been blooming. Spring has been very warm
and now in late spring were experiencing many hot days, e.g.
June 7th brought an official high of +37 deg.C. The Trachycarpus
species continued slow but steady growth throughout the winter.
They were unheated but most of them were covered with a Styrofoambox
to avoid moisture. Result: No damage.
The Jubaea was heated with heating cables below -8
deg. C and also sustained no damage. And finally the Washingtonias
were also covered with large Styrofoam boxes and heated with heating
cables. I found out that it was really quite easy to keep them frost
free even during the coldest days, but I admitted the temperatures
to fall as low as -7 deg. C. on several occasions. Result: No leave
damage, but spear had to outgrow some fungus on it. In late February
I planted out one of my large (5 ft.) Jubaea . I have to concede
it is really an exciting sight, compared with Phoenix and Butia
palms of equal size.
Trachycarpus wagnerianus has now (June) some 20 fans,
after it lost all of them during the 96/97 winter and my largest
Trachycarpus fortunei already 30! Eucalyptus parvifolia, E. debeuzevillei
and E. niphophila, all about two feet high, sustained no damage
as did a Eriobothrya japonica, which overwintered outside the whole
winter in a pot. Because the Loquat did so well I planted it permanently
in the ground in February. Im really glad were back
to warmer winters again after the last two severe ones.
20-01-21 - 14:14GMT
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