Bravo Brahea!

Jon's earlier article caused a great deal of interest. Here we have
an update and learn just how well this extraordinary palm is doing.

John Kenahan, West Sussex, UK.
Chamaerops No.31 Summer 1998

Picture: Jon's wife Sue admires their beautiful Brahea armata, thoroughly at home on Englands south coast

It is now two years since my previous despatch was published ('Viva Armata!', Chamaerops 21) and as the article aroused considerable interest it seems a good time to give a progress report from the front line. Firstly however a big “Thank You” to all those who have given first hand information of their own experiences with this wonderful palm.

Secondly may I point out that the last word of the article was a misprint; it should have read “whopper” as in Big Mac and NOT “whimper” as in Little Mac! For I believed then and am convinced now that Brahea armata CAN succeed in Northern Europe.

Now for a few statistics: the palm was planted in 1994 (about two feet tall) and produced four new leaves in its first season. In 1995 SIX spears opened and SIX more in1996. Last year there were seven more leaves This compares very well with the other single trunked palms in my small West Sussex garden, for last year only one palm could beat this and as you can guess that was good old Trachy, which produced ten new leaves.

Both Butia capitata and Phoenix canariensis produced only four leaves and other palms were slower still. Seems amazing, but Brahea armata is my second fastest palm! Why is it doing so well? The three most likely possibilities were a) Provenance b) Seed variability and c) Temperature. As far as provenance goes I wondered had the palm originated from a seed from somewhere climatically challenged, Minsk maybe? The answer comrades is.....Nyet! My “informants” tell me that the palm in fact came from a well-known wholesale nursery in southern Italy which had in turn imported it as a young seedling from somewhere in sunny Sicily (exact location unknown). Provenance can therefore he ruled out.

The second factor I considered was seed variability for Brahea armata seedlings, just like most other palms, do vary somewhat in growth. However as I have no other specimens in my garden to compare it with, it is not possible to come to a definite conclusion. My opinion is that the palm is probably average or perhaps slightly faster than average specimen. Finally I looked at the question of Temperature, and I consider this, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be the key factor. As far as winter temperatures are concerned it is an established fact that B. armata can withstand frosts down to around -10 deg.C. but NOT for prolonged periods.

In my area I am fortunate that very hard frosts are rare and to date the palm has had to contend with temperatures down to -7 deg. C although it has been subject to frost and snow each winter, even including last remarkably mild winter. If however you enjoy (or otherwise!) a cold Continental winter climate then some form of winter protection is essential. I have protected the stem and spear with fleece in previous years but as the palm is now getting to a reasonable size, I have not done so this winter and do not intend to do so again in the future. I trust this answers the question posed by Ray Barton (Letters, Chamaerops No 25): the palm has never been covered.

As for summer temperatures: the Brahea is planted in one of the hottest spots in my garden, but not the sunniest which is occupied by a Butia capitata. In fact the Brahea is not in full sun until about an hour before midday and if given a sunnier position, with perhaps an hour or two of extra morning sun, then surely it would be growing even faster. Certainly as far as the British Isles is concerned HEAT seems to be the route to success. In the wonderful garden at Lamorran House in Cornwall two specimens have been planted; one in the original upper garden at least ten years ago and the second in the newer, lower part of the garden much more recently. This new specimen is planted at the head of a small gully and is enclosed on three sides by stone. Also the lower garden has a warmer microclimate than the upper part. No prizes for guessing that the new palm is growing at a much faster rate than the original!

First time visitors to Lamorran (Chamaerops 29) will no doubt be surprised to read that half the garden is newly planted; in fact you can’t see the join! This has been due to planting with mature specimens, a very long growing season, frosts being usually light or non existant1 but above all to the brilliance of the design. Robert Gooding from Suffolk (Letters Chamaerops 24) tells me that his specimen has grown very well and suffered no damage during the 1996/1997 winter. In his own words “the position is baking hot in summer - the palm is almost surrounded by brick” Sounds ideal Robert! The milder niches of the British Isles then are good areas to try this palm, but if you live in a climate with cold winters and cool summers then frankly this palm may not be worth risking outside, though I would love to be proved wrong!

Now for Continental Northern Europe. Yes, you may have cold winters but you are compensated by longer, hotter summers than us Brits, so with winter protection can you grow B. armata in your garden? The surprising answer is Yes! The most remarkable specimen that I know of in Northern Europe was planted in 1973 by EPS member Eric Von Speybroeck in the somewhat unlikely setting of Ghent in the tropic of Belgium. This amazing specimen did finally succumb to a very long cold spell during the winter of l996/1997 - a month of permanent frost. Nonetheless Eric had over twenty years of pleasure growing this lovely palm, which regularly produced at least six and often seven new leaves a year. The palm was covered (essential in cold continental winters) but was never given any artificial heat whatsoever! Indeed Eric grows many other species of palm as well as a mind boggling assortment of other exotica. With many years of practical experience Eric is a true pioneer with palms and exotica, and I am very much looking forward to an article he hopes to write in a future edition of the journal. One thing for certain: Eric has proved that IT CAN BE DONE!

My personal experiences with this gorgeous palm have been largely successful to date but I have had some problems with the first spear or two to open i.e. there has been some botrytis affecting the outer segment of the leaf and initially I put this down to frost damage. After careful consideration I now think the problem is one of drainage. Yes, I did work grit and gravel into the planting position but in the case of B. armata this was not enough. On my clay soil the admixture of aggregates seems to work fine for B. capitata and P. canariensis, which adapt well to clay providing there is no waterlogging of the soil. T. fortunei actually enjoys clay soil. However B. armata needs much sharper drainage than these and I am therefore now occupied with providing extra drainage to the palm.

The lawn to the west of the palm has been removed to an area of seven feet by twenty one feet and I am presently installing a soil drainage system using perforated piping. Gravel and sharp grit will also be dug into the soil and covered by more gravel. If this seems a bit over the top, I should explain that I am not only attempting to provide the Brahea with extra drainage but also to open up an additional area of the garden for more exotics including PALMS of course!

One of the most interesting aspects of the Brahea’s development is the size of the petioles which are very different from recently imported specimens of the same height, the petioles on our specimen being around 30cms in length and 2cms in width at the hastula. The new arrivals have petioles nearer to 60cms in length and l.5cms in width, i.e. longer and thinner (my cooler growing conditions perhaps?) The crown is therefore quite dense, which is rather a good thing as any damaged leaves are well camouflaged and indeed the silvery blue colour of the leaves is enhanced.

I am in total agreement with the sentiment previously expressed in “Chamaerops” that no palm is worth growing outside if it barely survives and looks terrible, but as you can see in the picture our palm is very acceptable indeed.

The reason our soil conditions are slightly moist in places is not entirely due to our clay soil alone, but to the fact that we are fairly close to the water table, and indeed are situated near to the seafront, the garden being only twenty feet above sea level. However, we are fortunate that there is almost no waterlogging of the soil, a condition that would prove fatal to most palms. Nevertheless, on moving here in 1993, it was immediately obvious that no amount of soil drainage would be sufficient to enable us to grow succulents such as Agave, Dasylirion and Puya, for in my area the winter frosts would turn them to mush. Therefore one of our first garden projects was the construction of two raised beds consisting of 90% 3/8" shingle, 6% sharp grit and 4% peat/shredded bark. This medium, almost devoid of organic content, may seem far too open for any plant to survive in but many are only too happy in this “soil” and do not suffer any frost damage. An example is Puya alpestris which produced its first flowering stem last June to happily coincide with a visit by Eric and Anny van Speybroeck. There is a little more to this raised bed technique than the composition of the medium alone, and should members be interested I will give full details in a future issue of “Chamaerops”.

A final point: Under British conditions B. armata does NOT appear to succeed when planted small, such specimens either succumbing to their first winter or only just surviving and producing a leaf or two a year. The minimum planting size for success would appear to be about twenty inches and the optimum size, twenty four to thirty six inches. I am not aware of any large (six foot plus) specimens being planted outdoors in the British Isles, but it seems probable that if attempted, they would succeed. I hope to give an update on our lovely Mexican Blue Palm again in another couple of years. Till then, Adios Amigos!


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