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Palm Trees of Lake Geneva

by Nicolas Eracle, Route de Brent 30, 1817 Brent/Montreux, Switzerland

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Left: Brahea armata with Lake Geneva in the background.
Right: Trachycarpus fortunei

I've been a member of the EPS for one year, and my passion for palm trees only grows. This is why I would like to present to you the area of Lake Geneva, where I reside, and where beautiful specimens of palm trees can be seen. Climatically, aside from the Ticino, south of the Alps, our area is the most privileged in Switzerland. The basin of Lake Geneva benefits from hot and sunny summers; in fact, Geneva is the sunniest city in Switzerland between May and September. The winters are often calm with little wind. On the downside, when fog sets in, it can last for many weeks, especially on the west half of the lake. This dull weather makes everything seem a little sad. Under this gray cover, however, the lake is able to retain the heat energy accumulated in the summer, and the temperature remains constant, just above zero. The springs and the autumns are often wet, but this is not an absolute rule. The average annual minimum in the area is between -8°C and -10°C depending on the location, which places us in zone 8. One notable exception was in 1985, when the temperature fell to -17°C on the edges of the lake.

As a child in Geneva, I liked to walk outside the city to admire the gardens. One day, I fell nose to nose with two superb Trachycarpus fortunei that were approximately 5 meters high. The passion was born! From that day on, my dream was to have my own house, a garden…and palm trees! Unfortunately, although there are beautiful Trachycarpus fortunei in Geneva, they are very rare, which is unfortunate as the climate is favorable for them. Lack of knowledge about the ability of many palms to resist cold makes people hesitant to plant them outside; let's hope that certain courageous people will show the way!

To see the many palm trees around lake Geneva, one must travel to Montreux, a city that is located close to the east end of the lake. For decades Montreux has been making enormous efforts to increase its tourism and spread its image of a green city, with many species and a benign climate. The palm trees are part of that image here. The area is called the Swiss Riviera. Many Trachycarpus fortunei are planted on the edges of the lake and along the streets. They are also frequently seen in private gardens. There are also some nice Chamaerops and Butia. Recently two Brahea armata, two Washingtonia filifera, and a Trithrinax campestris were planted on the walk bordering the lake. Lovers of other plants will not be disappointed either, as Mimosas (Acacia delbata), olive-trees, pomegranates and rose bays may also be seen here, as well as the Musa basjoo.

In 1998, I had the chance to build my house on the edge of Montreux; my childhood dream had come true. My enthusiasm for palms being so great, I already saw the garden filled with them--and only them. However, after long debates with my wife, I agreed to plant more than palms alone in the garden. Like any beginner, I started by making errors. The first one was to plant a Trachycarpus of 60cm, a Butia of 70cm, and a Jubaea of 120cm that I had bought a few years before in Ticino, in October. Additionally, with compact soil that drained poorly and holes hardly larger than the pots, I really didn't have much chance. To cap it all, the winter of 1998-99 was the coldest in 13 years, with two days at -11°C right after a period of strong rain and snow. The Butia and the Jubaea rotted slowly in the spring of 1999. It made me regret my poorly thought out plantings bitterly. Fortunately, the Trachycarpus withstood this bad treatment without any problem, and I replanted it in a larger hole in the spring. I'd learned my first rule: plant at the beginning of the season, in large holes that are deep and well drained.

I went to Ticino in May in search of a new Jubaea. Unfortunately, as the large specimens are rare and much in demand, I came back home with empty hands. Finally, with the help of the Palm Centre (thank you Martin!) I received a much wished-for Jubaea in July that I immediately planted it in the garden, in a large, deep hole with well draining soil. The next autumn, my wife gave me a second Trachycarpus that measured 180cm. Though I was anxious to have it in the ground, I'd learned my lesson, and decided to keep it in its pot for the first winter. For extra caution, I used rain protection and mulch on the Jubaea to help it through its first winter. The first Trachycarpus remained without protection. Luckily, the winter of 1999-2000 was less cold with -8°C and the Jubaea and the Trachycarpus are in good health.

My last acquisitions are a Brahea armata of 160cm and a Butia yatay. The Brahea was planted in the garden at the end of March in a very sandy soil. Like others, I am surprised by its speed of growth. At the end of May, it had already produced a whole leaf. I also have many young plants: Brahea armata, Chamaerops humilis, Sabal minor, Washingtonia filifera, Jubaea chilensis, Syagrus romanzoffiana, Phoenix canariensis, Trachycarpus fortunei, T. takil and T. latisectus. My goal is to try acclimating Phoenix theophrasti and Parajubaea torallyi, which seem to me particularly interesting.

Readers Comments:

On 8-12-2000 Ted W. Baer wrote:
Palm Trees of Lake Geneva:
I am like Mr. Eracle a newcomer in palm growing (since one year). I leave also in the Lake of Geneva area and I am very happy to learn that somebody in my neighbourhood is sharing the same hobby. That's thanks to EPS !
In connection with the warming up of our climate,I think our area is worth making a lot of interesting experiments with hardy palmtrees.

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