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Martin Gibbons, c/o The Palm Centre
Chamaerops No.34 Spring 1999

Most people, it seems, come to an interest in Palms the long way round. Perhaps they were originally interested in gardening, and had an appreciation for 'normal' garden plants. Maybe this developed towards an interest in more exotic planting as their taste matured and sharpened. Finally, they arrived at what are surely the most 'exotic' of all hardy garden plants, the Palms. I, on the other hand, started at most peoples' destination, if I can put it that way. I began with palms then worked backwards. Prior to this interest, or should I say, this obsession with palms, I had no leaning towards gardening, or botany, or horticulture. I had no formal training or education in the subject. You might say I went in at the deep end. Twenty years later, I find I am still as passionate as ever about these princes of the plant world, but, as I get older, I discover that something is happening which I never would have predicted: I seem to be being drawn towards other plants. Towards bamboos and ferns, to cordylines and yuccas, even - heaven forfend towards some FLOWERS!

I've tried gardening with just palms, and while you can accommodate an impressive collection in a garden, it somehow seems a bit - how can I put it? - arid? And, it always looks like a collection, rather than a garden. A bit like a meal of potatoes cooked 12 different ways. Clever? Yes. Thought-provoking? Certainly. Imaginative? Indisputably. But still just potatoes. Members used to submit articles for 'Chamaerops' about 'companion plants' or 'palm-like plants' and they did so with a great deal of trepidation, such was my reputation as a palm purist. Now, I'm beginning to see the light.

That which makes hardy palms so fascinating, the 'exoticness' of them, that surreal quality that makes your heart skip a beat because they somehow shouldn't BE here, like Salvador Dali's extended elephants in the desert, can, I am slowly discovering, be recognized in other members of the plant kingdom. Tree ferns, bamboos, gunnera, bananas all look as though they truly belong somewhere else, as indeed they do. Put any one of these in a garden whose neighbours sport roses and chrysanthemums and the effect is magic. Put a whole lot of them together and the effect can he jaw-dropping! And that is the essence of the exotic garden. So many foreigners, aliens, all together, looking entirely comfortable with one another, and totally at odds with the neighbours. Love it!

The particular wave that we are riding at the moment is largely being driven by the many programmes on TV about gardening, and especially, about the exotic garden. A few years ago, it was almost impossible to sell bamboo in any quantity, now everyone wants the stuff, and it's becoming really popular. Most people are still terrified of being invaded by rampant bamboo and this is a major block to even greater popularity, but even so, it's still happening. And who doesn't have a tree fern these days? Again, we can thank television for the dramatic rise in popular interest in these wonderful plants.

So where do flowers come in? Well, I am starting to see that flowers, the right kind of flowers that is, can and do add much to the exotic garden. How can you have a Mediterranean garden without bougainvillea and oleander? Or a tropical-themed garden without brilliant red canna? And there's more: metrosideros, jasmine, hibiscus, callistemon, erythrina all have a part to play in the exotic garden and far from detracting from the stalwarts, the palms, actually add to the effect.

To the died-in-the-wool palm purists I would like to say that I have not 'gone soft' and I still hold high the palm banner. Palms are my first love and I guess always will be. To those who long ago discovered and who use these additional accents in the exotic garden I apologise for preaching to the converted. I am obviously a late developer. And to those somewhere in the middle, I do urge you to try some of them next spring. The general effect of your garden will be enhanced, there will be colour instead of a sea of uniform green, and these bright reds and blues and yellows will bring an exotic sparkle where none existed before. M.G.


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