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
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 cant 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 Braheas
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!