Interview with the Editor - Part 2

Second and final part of this no-holds barred, unabridged and completely unexpurgated expose of your editor's Life-with-Palms
by Imtiaz McDoom-Gafoor, London, UK
Chamaerops No.38, Spring Edition 2000

Medemia argun, Nubian desert, Sudan

Imtiaz McDoom-Gafoor: Another palm recently available is Trithrinax campestris. Where does it come from and what conditions does it grow in?

Martin: Trithrinax campestris is an absolutely beautiful palm, one of the most striking palms in the world I’d say. It has very stiff, very blue, fan shaped leaves and its trunk is covered in an intricate network of old leaf bases and fibres and spines - a very dramatic looking palm. It grows in the west of Argentina, near a place called Corrientes. It grows in a band 50 miles long and 20 miles wide and there are hundreds of thousands of trees in this band. Large parts of this area are being cleared for the planting of genetically modified foods like soya and sunflowers. The bulldozers are sent in, destroying all these venerable old trees, often 100 years old, in an area of a couple of square miles at a time. They are bulldozed into the middle of the field, poured diesel on and set light to and the ashes ploughed into the ground. Sunflower and soya seeds are then planted in their place. The bulldozers then move on to the next area and repeat the same thing. I have a contact there that gets in before the bulldozers and takes these Trithrinax out of the ground and reroots them over several months and ships them over to Europe. We had a container in the summer and they are growing well in our back field. They are dramatic in appearance, extremely wind resistant, surely one of the cold hardiest palms in the world, and a stunning addition to an exotic garden.

IMG: What is the most memorable palm trip you have been on?

Martin: It was rediscovering Medemia argun in the Sudan. It was last recorded in Egypt in 1964 (a solitary tree, now dead) and not recorded in Sudan since the 1920‘s or 30‘s. We mounted an expedition to try to find it. It was said to grow near a town called Murrat Wells, north of Khartoum. We arrived at a city called Atbara on the River Nile and showed photographs of Medemia argun but no one had heard of Murrat Wells until an old camel driver was summoned. He said not only did he know Murrat Wells but he also knew Medemia. Our excitement can only be imagined! After a couple of days in the desert we came to Murrat Wells and it became obvious why it was not on any modern map - it was a ghost town, an old gold mining town deserted when the gold ran out. Beyond the town the landscape changed and it became a long, low valley and right at the end we could see something through the heat haze that looked vaguely like a palm tree, maybe a Washingtonia or a Hyphaene. As we got closer we realised it was Medemia argun, it was just so exciting !
We saw a number of trees, some of which were heavy with thousands of big, plum sized, dark blue-black fruits. Two years later we returned and found perhaps a thousand trees in several scattered populations. Some were in good condition, others in very poor condition, and it suggests that the underground water, which keeps them alive, changed course over the years and deprived the palms of water and hence their poor condition. However, there were many and they were reproducing in the wild. I think their future is OK; they don’t really have any natural enemies, but there is a suggestion that the whole area is much dryer than it was, so their long term security is not known. We were able to distribute these seeds to most of the botanical gardens in the world. It is the first time they have been introduced into cultivation outside of the Sudan and many are now growing around the world, wherever the habitat is suitable for them. It was a very exciting trip and we had the added bonus of being able to prove that this palm, which had previously been thought to be extinct, was alive and well.

IMG: Why are so many potentially cold hardy palms so poorly available in cultivation?

Martin: A lot of palms are obscure because they grow in places that are difficult to access. Many grow on borders, like Trachycarpus princeps in China, Burma, and Tibet. Likewise, Trachycarpus takil grows on the border between India and Nepal. These border areas are always very sensitive and both India and China are very touchy about their borders, so there are always personal risks involved in being in these areas. In addition to political problems, many palms grow on cliff faces which are difficult to climb. The locals may have cut down the more accessible palms, so getting to the remaining ones is often a physical challenge. You have to sometimes row across fast flowing rivers, climb up steep cliffs, and certainly climb trees. One trip in South America we invested in a pair of tree spikes, which are like spurs but with a spike on the inside and you strap these to your legs. You literally climb up the trees, with a safety harness, which would cushion you in the event of a fall. When the palm is 40 ft tall and it is a Ceroxylon whose trunk is covered in wax, it’s a hairy experience. Other times we have been stuck in deep mud trying to cross the Andes. The higher you go the wetter it is. The roads are unmade and muddy and you are miles from anywhere. You have to make a decision: should we turn around or should we go for it, and always it seems we went for it! Stuck in mud at night at 3500m in the Andes, miles from civilisation, is not a lot of fun, but all part of the experience. More than once we’ve had to sleep in the car and go for help in the morning.

IMG: What is the most dangerous trip that you have been on?

Martin: The most dangerous place we have ever been to, and the country I was most glad to leave, was Colombia. We went there not knowing how dangerous it was, and once there we met a professor at the university in Bogota who was surprised that we appeared to be naive enough not to know how dangerous it was. We phoned up our respective embassies. I phoned up the British embassy and they said that under no circumstances should we travel by road. There have been several British nationals kidnapped already and some of them are still in captivity. The embassy staff doesn’t travel by road unless it is absolutely necessary and then they go with bulletproof vehicles and police escort front and back. Toby phoned up the German embassy and was told a similar report: there had been twelve German nationals kidnapped so far that year, and kidnapping in Colombia is a huge business. And there we were in our shiny, bright green, brand new, obviously hired car, saying „Tourists - come and get us!“ I was very nervous driving around the countryside in Colombia. In fact, we had planned to spend 10 days there, and 10 days in Ecuador. We spent just 3 days in Colombia and couldn’t wait to leave. The extra 7 days we spent in Ecuador and it was absolutely not wasted.

IMG: Which countries would you like to visit that you have not previously been to?

Martin: I would like to go to Vietnam. North Vietnam is worth visiting although there are probably a few unexploded mines there which gives pause for thought. There has been very little botanical exploration and many parts are still undiscovered from a botanical viewpoint. I would also like to visit some other South American countries. We briefly visited Brazil but it is a vast country. I especially would like to see the temperate southern part, and I would like to explore that properly from a palm point of view. And of course, Burma, which I mentioned earlier.

IMG: You were involved in the formation of the European Palm Society. When was it formed and how has it evolved?

Martin: It was formed about 9 years ago based on the old Temperate Zone Chapter which was run by Tamar Myers in Ohio. She ran the magazine for many years and I was just absolutely hooked on it and used to read and devour and digest every word. It was a shock when Tamar said she was to stop producing it. So three of us got together, Tony King, John Churcher and myself, and decided to start up the European Palm Society. At that stage we didn’t know what we would call the society or the magazine. We thought of calling it „Jubaea“ but then it seemed logical to name it after a European palm and hence the name ”Chamaerops“. It now has nearly a thousand members.

IMG: How did the Palm Centre first begin?

Martin: The Palm Centre opened in 1989 after I started selling duplicate palm seedlings. Eventually my entire house and garden was filled with palms. I would have customers come round at weekend and someone would ask for a palm and I would say, yes I think there is one in the second bedroom or one on the first landing. And so we would troop up the stairs and there would be another party coming down. It got ridiculous! I started buying from Spain and 40ft lorries would be pulling up outside and blocking up all the traffic. It was absurd and something had to be done. It took me a year to find suitable premises and I eventually found a small nursery, or shop and yard to be more accurate, in East Sheen, in West London, not far from Kew Gardens. I remembered driving out there for the first time and I thought that any minute I was going to drive off the edge of the world. It just seemed so remote.
I had sleepless nights for about the only time in my life worrying about the enormous expense of opening it. I would go to bed at 11 o’clock or midnight and would wake up at 2 o’clock in a cold sweat thinking, oh God this is the most stupid thing I have ever done, it’s never going to work, everyone is going to laugh at me. But in fact it began well, and I’ve never really looked back.

IMG: Where do you source the wide and varied palms that you sell?

Martin: These days we get palms and other plants from the four corners of the world. We get tree ferns from New Zealand and Australia, big palms from Argentina in South America, from Costa Rica in Central America, a lot from the United States and from several countries in Europe, notably Spain but also Sicily. In fact, anywhere where there are commercial nurseries set up for the export of palms. Interestingly, I am always coming across new nurseries, new species to try. The range of species seems to be increasing whereas you would expect it to be finite.

IMG: The Palm Centre is now working closely with a nursery in Spain to increase the availability of hardy palms in Britain. Tell me about this venture.

Martin: It is so frustrating to go to some of the best nurseries in the world, say in Florida or California and find that they have just two or three plants of a rare hardy palm or four or five or some that they don’t want to sell. There is no difficulty in growing these palms or getting hold of seed but you ask yourself why aren’t they growing thousands of them instead of only two or three plants? It can’t be because there is no demand. So a few years ago we started to supply large numbers of seeds to a nursery near Valencia in Spain which they are growing on for us. It now has about 30 or 40 species of cold hardy and cool hardy palms, about 150,000 rare young palms, which no one else in the world seems to be growing in commercial quantities. In a few years’ time they will be available in good numbers and in reasonable sizes. As we have discovered, often the only way to get these palms in any numbers is to grow them yourself.

IMG: Do you obtain seeds from cultivated plants or from the wild?

Martin: All our seeds are collected from the wild. If anybody has any problem with the morality of collecting seeds in the wild I must say that a lot of seeds in the wild don’t germinate, as the conditions are not right. A lot are also attacked by insects or animals and so don’t germinate. I have no qualms about collecting seeds in the wild because that is often the only way that they will germinate. Also it is often the only way to introduce the palms into cultivation. I can’t pretend that having people grow Medemia argun or Nannorrhops ritchiana in England will save them from extinction, but we do sell seeds around the world. A lot of them will go on to produce perhaps quite a sizeable population of these rare palms and it may have an effect on the future survival of the species.

IMG: The Palm Centre has expanded considerably. Tell me about it.

Martin: I opened up the nursery in Sheen in1989 having bought the lease from a gentleman who was moving to a larger nursery in nearby Ham. After a year I phoned him up and said could we meet, and he told me afterwards that he thought I was going to say that the Palm Centre is doing so badly would he like to take the lease back. In fact, I was saying to him that the Palm Centre is doing so well could I rent some space at his new nursery in Ham. So we have actually had a presence here in Ham where the nursery is currently situated for a number of years as we rented a part of the glasshouse. Very recently we had the opportunity to take over the whole site, about 5 acres.
At the old shop it was just me and one or two people. These days it is over 20 people, 10 permanently on the payroll plus casuals, and it has turned into quite a sizeable business. It has expanded largely due in part to the effect of television programmes about garden makeovers. People see palms and bamboos and other exotics featured on these programmes and they want them. We are also wholesaling palms now to other garden centres and the demand is increasing. There is a general movement in the direction of exotic plants.

IMG: How long ago did you begin your garden, how has it developed over the years and what are some of the more unusual palms that you grow in it?

Martin: I began the garden at more or less the same time as the Palm Centre. It is situated in south London in a sheltered microclimate, since the north and east winds have to come over the city before reaching that area. There are many rare and unusual palms in it. Most of the Trachycarpus species are grown there, nanus, martianus, oreophilus, perhaps the largest oreophilus outside of Thailand. Lytocaryum weddellianum has been growing for three years and is not affected by the cold despite its delicate appearance. Cycas revoluta as well. Generally, Cycads don’t do very well in this country as they need a certain level of heat, and duration of warm weather, before growing new fronds. When they do it is usually too late in the season. I have lots of bamboos, also Ceroxylons, and Guihaya argyrata, Chamaerops var. cerifera, several of the smaller Chamaedorea palms which are under-used in this country. Both Chamaedorea radicalis and Chamaedorea microspadix can recover from -8c. I am also growing Rhapis multifida outdoors which is growing well. Rhapis excelsa is the only commonly available Rhapis species in Britain, yet there at least 8 species and several obscure ones. Arenga engleri has also been undamaged by frost.

IMG: Trachycarpus fortunei and Chamaerops humilis have been the main palms for over 150 years. What do you consider will complement or supersede them in the 21st century?

Martin: Trachycarpus wagnerianus, and latisectus when they become more widely available. Also Chamaerops cerifera will become more popular than the green form although it is much slower growing. Maybe some of the more exotic palms like Plectocomia himalayana and Caryota ‚Himalaya‘.

IMG: What do you consider to be your most important contribution to the world of hardy palms?

I suppose it is opening the Palm Centre and endeavouring to introduce new hardy palms into the country generally. I am constantly striving to increase the range of hardy palms available to the British and European public through a combination of seed collecting trips abroad supplemented by buying in palms from overseas. Also, by selling seeds to overseas nurseries for onward growing in other parts of the world, these palm collecting trips reach a wider market. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle. Customers are sometimes reluctant to consider other palms and are resistant to change, preferring to choose only the familiar, common palms like Trachycarpus and Chamaerops. It can be so frustrating. I would like to change people’s perception from seeing hardy palms as potted plants, to be stood outside for the summer only, to seeing them as garden trees, an integral part of the landscape. We are growing successfully many hardy palms that are not thought of as hardy like Plectocomia himalayana. If you give some palms minimum protection they grow very well like the Chamaedoreas. Also experiment with different species. If you have to protect them for a couple of weeks during the winter then fine. It is well worth the special attention because they are then there for the other 50 weeks of the year to enjoy. Instead of everybody waiting for everyone else, it needs a few pioneers to actually plant these palms and take a risk as there is always a risk involved. I wish people would grow more Jubaeas. I know they are very expensive, particularly reasonably sized ones. Everyone flocks to Cornwall to see the large one in Torquay with 20 ft of trunk but don’t consider planting one themselves. If 99 more were planted 100 years ago there would have been 100 to admire today instead of just the one. There are lots more discoveries to be made. My mission is to get palms planted outdoors!

IMG: Thank you for the interview. It was interesting and I wish you well with the Palm Centre and future palm expeditions abroad.


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