Growing Temperate Palms on a "Gulf Stream" Coast

In our temperate European climate cold is less of a problem than wind and damp. Here's how to cope.
Roger Dixon, Torquay, Devon, UK
Chamaerops No.34 Spring 1999

Torquay's famous Jubaea Chilensis attracts palm enthusiasts from around the world.

Torquay lies on the south coast of Devon in SouthWest England. This is one of the "Gulf Stream" coasts of the British Isles. Here, the sea temperature rarely drops much below 10C/50F although, of course, the air temperature can drop considerably below this.

With rocky coastal cliffs and wooded hills, dotted with villas, falling steeply away to a small fishing harbour (now a yachting marina!) the area has a similarity to the Riviera coasts of the Mediterranean. As such, Torquay has become known as the "English Riviera".

Sunbathers, who are interested in the hottest summer temperatures, scoff at this description. For, whereas the Riviera coasts of the Mediterranean have weeks, if not months, during which the temperature rises into the nineties, the temperature in Torquay rarely exceeds 22C/75F.

However, exotic plant growers, such as many readers of "Chamaerops", who are more interested in winter minimum temperatures, might find the Riviera description more appropriate.

In Torquay, the average daily minimum temperature during January and February is 3C, the average daily maximum temperature is 10C. The average lowest annual temperature is about -3C. The extreme minimum temperature (i.e. the lowest recorded over a 50 year period) is about -8C. These figures are only one or two degrees lower than the equivalent temperatures for Nice on the French Riviera. Hence woody, perennial plants that can get through the winter in Nice unscathed have a fighting chance of surviving the winter in Torquay.

The Torquay parks department have taken advantage of the local climate to plant many palms including Trachycarpus fortunei, Chamaerops humilis, Phoenix canariensis, Butia capitata and Washingtonia filifera In a local private garden there are two one hundred year-old Jubaea chilensis.

Are there no problems with growing temperate palms in Torquay? There certainly are! These can be summarised in two words: "damp" and "wind".

Torquay gets about forty inches of rain a year, most of which seems to fall as a thick, penetrating drizzle. Stand in front of a lawn sprinkler and you get the general idea! Given the water retentive nature of the local soils it is imperative to provide good drainage if the palms are not to suffer root rot during the dormant period. Good drainage means adding plenty of gravel to the soil, and preferably planting on a slope (readily available in Torquay!) or in a raised bed.

The damp climate also causes problems with providing insulation. Straw or dried leaves used as insulation becomes a soggy mess, not only losing any insulating properties but also providing a breeding ground for fungus spores which can lead to palm rot.

In my (very limited) experience it is better to concentrate on those palms that will get through the typical winter without protection, only providing insulation for the short periods when damaging cold threatens and removing the insulation as soon as the cold snap is over. This ensures a good flow of air around the palm decreasing the risk of rot.

The other problem is wind. It is difficult for those living in inland areas to realise how damaging salt laden winds can be to gardens, large leaf evergreens such as palms being particularly vulnerable. Even in calm weather plants get a continual buffeting from sea breezes. When storms race in off the Atlantic trees can lose large branches and shrubs can be completely uprooted.

Even in a compact garden, such as mine, with no line of sight to the sea, dense planting of bushes and trees as wind breaks is necessary if palms are to grow well. After all, no one wants an array of tatty palms in their garden whether the stunted growth is due to frost or wind.

Certain palms have leaves that are more resistant to wind damage than others. Of the fan leaf palms Chamaerops humilis is definitely more resistant than Trachycarpus fortunei Amongst the feather leaf palms Butia capitata seems more resistant than Phoenix canariensis or Jubaea chilensis Cycas revoluta also seems fairly wind resistant.

The other problem caused by wind is "wind rock". This occurs when a palm is planted. The root hall is placed in the hole but, because the wind continually rocks the palm, the palm roots fail to penetrate the surrounding soil. Secure staking for one or two years is needed to overcome the problem.

I would be very in-terested in hearing from other palm growers from the "Gulf Stream" coasts of NorthWest Europe, in particular in their experiences in combating these twin problems of damp and wind.

 

  08-12-19 - 21:51GMT
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