Ups and Downs of Growing Palms in Portugal

Charlie leads us up the garden path in Portugal.
Charles Wijchgel, Monte Palmeira, Salema (Figueiral), Algarve, Portugal
Chamaerops No.31 Summer 1998

About 6 years ago I started an interest in palms when someone offered me 20 young Washingtonia and 10 Phoenix canariensis for what was to be my new garden. I was living in Holland then and in the process of building my dream house in the Algarve in South Portugal. It is built on a 5000 square metre plot on the southern slope of a hill in the Western Algarve, just a kilometre from the sea. The climate is mild, frost free, the average low 4C, average high 30C, thanks to the presence of the gulfstream.

The garden soil consists of heavy clay, never more than a metre deep; under this limestone is found. The original vegetation in this area consists of almond, fig, carob trees; pistachia lenticus, juniper and blackberry bushes and masses of wild flowers in spring: orchids, iris, gladiolus, asphodel, poppies, lavender and thyme.

The first downer occurred when I discovered that the clay is rock hard in summer; consequently the very first planting holes were just slightly bigger than, and barely deep enough for the pots the plants came in. Now I know better; holes are dug in September after the first rains have softened the soil.

Give a one dollar plant a five dollar hole they say in America, a hole is dug one metre diameter one 80 cm deep; this then is backfilled with coarse pine bark, chicken manure, peat for the acid-lovers or sand for better drainage, 2 kg urea and the original soil. This is left to decompose all winter; 6 months later in spring the palms will be planted.

Another down point is the desiccating wind that usually blows in the summer months. This problem I hope to cure by planting a hedge of Melaleuca trees around the property, and several fast growing acacia at strategic points. These trees require little or no water once established so more will be available for the palms.

Temperature-wise everything is on the upscale; the average temperatures are slightly above those in Southern California, so I can safely assume that what grows well there will do fine here. (The list of palms that do well there is as long as my arm).

The average selection of palms available in the Algarve a few years ago was limited to a handfull of species. Besides Washingtonia, Phoenix canariensis, garden centres sold Trachycarpus fortunei, Livistona chinensis and an occasional Butia. The indoor section offered Phoenix roebelenii, Howea forsteriana, and the ubiquitous Chamaedorea elegans. Chamaerops humilis was considered not proper for private gardens; a mere weed that nobody bothered with.

I bought all species available and planted them rightaway, the Chamaedorea in a shaded spot on the north side of the house. By this time I had read Palms of the World, the first of many palm books I acquired and, after a visit to Kew Gardens and the purchase of ‘Identifying Palms’ in their bookshop, I went straight to The Palm Centre and became a member of the EPS.

Now the ball was really rolling!

I was still living in Holland then, and on every visit to Portugal I took some palms with me:Neodypsis decaryii, Ravenea rivularis, Dictyosperma album, Hyophorbe verschaffeltii; all went rightaway into the ground. I became a member of the International Palm Society, visited several gardens in Florida and California as well as botanical gardens in Europe, Asia and Africa. Seeds collected on these trips germinated, giving tremendous satisfaction as well as a lesson in patience. A flood of new books have been published in the last five years and it looks like interest in palms is surging just like it did a hundred years ago at the turn of the century.

I am building a small greenhouse now, to speed up the growth of young plants. Here the Madagascar seedlings will be pumped to planting size: Dypsis decipiens, D. leptocheilos, D. tsaratanensis; Marojejya darianii; maybe Lemurophoenix.

A list now of all palms growing outside follows, the average height in centimetres is in brackets.

Acoelorraphe wrightii (40)
a palm that simply cannot be overwatered.
Archontophoenix alexandrae(200)
a fast growing crownshaft palm, it likes regular overhead spray in summer.

Archontophoenix cunninghamiana (250)
does equally well and will probably flower this year.

Arenga engleri (20)
planted in full sun; this is one of those species that doesn’t move while time flies.

Aiphanes aculeata (20)
still in a pot, bought 2 years ago as a barerooted seedling from Hawaii.

Allagoptera arenaria (40)
still in a pot.

Arenga australasica (40)
still in a pot, growing very well.

Beccariophoenix madagascariensis (15)
still potted, given to me by Dutch palm collector Martin Sloos, plant struggling, maybe I’m doing something terribly wrong with it. Time will tell.

Bismarckia nobilis (150)(40)
two plants, the big one being the green leaf type.

Brahea dulcis (100)

Brahea brandegeei (60)
All Brahea species are strong growers, easy and drought resistant.

Butia capitata (150)
Good old Butia is another ‘no problem’ palm.

Calamus erectus (20)
still potted.

Caryota ‘Himalaya’ (40)
doing well but needs a lot of iron chelates.

Chambeyronia macrocarpa (100)
The first one I planted died. Too much sun and calcareus soil was probably the cause; the second one was planted in afternoon shade with loads of peat and humus added

Ceroxylon quindiuense (40)
struggling in too much sun and too calcareous a soil.

Ceroxylon alpinum (40)
still potted

Chamaedorea, C.elegans, C. metallica, C. erumpens, C. radicalis, C. linearis.
All growing very well, most have flowered, and since they are planted together, hybridization will most likely occur.

Copernicia alba (50)
doing fine, growing slowly.

Cocos nucifera (60)
bought in a local supermarket it will maybe not survive but who knows;there is a lot of talk about global warming lately.

Coccothrinax crinita (100)
this palm is really SLOW, so when I had the chance to buy a mature specimen in Holland I did not have to think long even though it was not cheap.

Coccothrinax argentata(50)
doing well, likes the calcareous soil.
Coccothrinax argentea (30)
as above.

Dictyosperma album (150).
Quite a big plant but still no sign of a crownshaft.

Dypsis lutescens (150), D. decaryii (150), D. leptocheilos (40), D. decipiens (15) potted, D. utilis (20) potted, D. tsaratanensis (15), D. basilonga (40) potted.
All Dypsis species show great promise, being cold hardy. Llittle information is available about the cultivation of these palms.

Euterpe edulis (30)
Dutch growers have the habit of putting more than one seed in a pot ; thus I bought 12 young seedlings of this palm. Separating them gave me 10 healthty plants for the price of one.

Guihayaia argyrata (40)
I had 2 nice plants unfortunately one died; bad drainage caused stem rot.

Howea forsteriana (150)
one of the first palms planted and doing well; likes a lot of water in summer.

Howea belmoreana (50)
still in pot will be put in the ground next year.

Hyophorbe verschaffeltii (200)
4 plants were bought in Holland (labelled: Mascarena). 3 of them died within a year (bad drainage) the last one lasted 3 years then stopped growing and when pulled, came away completely; some furry animals had tried to get to the cabbage and chewed 3/4 of the trunk. Now I have bought 2 mature plants.

Hyophorbe indica (100)
a nice potted palm given to me by French collector Alain Jamet; it will go in the ground this year.
Hyophorbe lagenicaulis (50)
was planted last year under the canopy of a Washingtonia near the house walls. This is considered a borderline palm in California; it’s going through its first winter protected by a thick mulch. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. This one grows in Almunecar (Spain) and a few kms from where I live awn English palm lover has grown a 2m specimen from seed.

Johannesteijsmannia magnifica (10O).
Kept in a pot, it is going through its first winter outside; this beauty, a litter collecting palm, was bought in Holland and will be grounded this spring.

Jubaea chilensis (60).
It is difficult to find large plants in nurseries. I did find two after several seedlings succumbed to root-rot, I gave up on growing this one from seed.

Latania loddigessii (60)
The Blue Latan palm is going through its second winter. If everything goes well I will plant a second one so maybe someday I will harvest those beautifully sculpted seed from my own garden.

Licuala spinosa (40)
planted last year and also going through its first winter.
Licuala ramsayi (50)
is still potted. I am keeping this one indoor this winter; Licuala species are among my favourites but difficult to grow in my garden because of the strong winds.

Livistona australis, L. decipiens, L. chinensis, L. mariae, L. rigida.
Relatively trouble free palms for me except for L. rotundifolia of which 2 plants died quickly after I planted them out; I will try again later with bigger plants.

Medemia argun (50)
still in a pot; I bought two seedlings from Tobias Spanner, one of them died, watered to death. The last one is doing fine with its blue leaves; I’ll keep it inside this winter though and will buy another one of these ‘lost’ palms this coming spring.

Marojejya darianii (10)
5 seedlings from seed acquired through The Palm Seed Bank. Another litter collecting palm and quite frankly I do not have a clue how this one will develop

Nannorrhops ritchiana (40)
After several seedlings died, again from over-watering (some people never learn) I bought 2 bigger plants in Spain, one has blue the other green leaves. The green one is in the ground the other still in a pot so I can compare the growth rate.

Pritchardia hillebrandii (90).
The Loulou palm, its more frivolous name, was bought as a seedling from The Palm Centre, is going through its second winter in the ground.

Phoenix canariensis, P. dactylifera, P. roebelenii
All have been in the ground for several years now, the roebelenii and canariensis flower every year.

Polyandrococos caudescens (20)
4 seedlings grown from seed collected in Hawaii, still in pots.

Parajubaea cocoides (40)
young plants still potted.

Pseudophoenix sargentii (250)
Allthough I am growing several young plants in pots, I could not resist buying a big specimen in Holland. Quite a lot of money, but this palm grows so slowly, it was worth it.

Ravenea rivularis(100)
bought in Holland 3 years ago but now readily available in Portugal. This is not only a fast growing but also very beautiful palm.
Ravenea glauca (60)
a more dainty species but also doing well. R. xerophylla (20) slowly growing with oddly shaped fleshy roots.

Rhapidophyllum hystrix(40)
four seedlings from The Palm Centre planted rightaway in the ground, settling into a slow growth.

Rhopalostylis ‘’Oceana’’ (60)
From the Chatham Islands planted last Sep-tember will need extra care in our hot and dry summers

Rhapis excelsa (60)
has been in the ground for three years now; transplanted once because it was getting too much sun in its first position.

Serenoa repens (40),
in the ground for 3 years now, this is the green leaved variety.

Syagrus romanzoffiana (200)
Becoming very popular in Portugal now, with big 10 metre plants imported from all over the world. Easy but needs a lot of fertilizer.
Syagrus coronata (60)
The Likury palm with its leaf base in a spiral row. Not a trunk yet as the plant is only 4 years old.
Syagrus schizophylla (40),
bought as a bare rooted seedling two years ago and planted last year. Slow growing.

Trachycarpus fortunei (250)
Another ‘no problem’ palm even the wind has hardly any effect on it. Flowering yearly; and to prevent hybridization, I will this year eat the inflorescence, raw or cooked (recipes anyone?!).
Trachycarpus martianus (60)
4 plants from our Trachy specialist M.G., seed collected on the E.P.S. trip to India has germinated well.
Trachycarpus nanus (40)
young plants still in pots waiting to be put in the ground. I only have two plants though and may need another two to ensure seed production.

Thrinax morrissii (100)
A large plant bought from a nursery and planted two years ago is sulking and has not moved a millimeter since then.

Trithrinax acanthocoma (50)
is doing well but is slow growing.
T. schizophylla (50).
T. campestris (160)
This size is pricey but again worth it being stunningly beautiful.

Washingtonia robusta (300), W. flifera (300).
Difficult to identify when young, easy to grow and fast if given adequate water.

Wodeytia bifurcata (250)
Another palm bought when it had developed a trunk already. Post greenhouse stress caused it to sulk for one year, then finally a spear opened. Seedlings from Hawaii have now grown large enough to be put into the ground this year. An elegant palm.

Zombia antillarum (60).
Two 40 cm plants were bought 2 years ago, one was planted immediately, the other kept in a pot until it was root bound and then planted out. Don Tollefson (Chamaerops 25) was right, the root bound plant is growing twice as fast.

Well that’s the list! Updates will follow in due course.


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