Surprises in Palermo

Italys big island has a lot of palms to discover, and many other attractions.
Juergen Plaumann, Grenzstr. 36, D-86156 Augsburg, Germany, qvintvs@surfeu.de

Chamaerops No.41, Winter Edition 2001

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1 and 2. Butia x Jubaea hybride
3. Chamaerops humilis in Agrigent
4. Brahea edulis in Palermo

In the end of March and the beginning April 2000, I went to see a friend of my youth in Palermo. I was especially interested in palms and archeology, which can both be found in Sicily. After doing some research, I found out that there is only one native palm, Chamerops humilis, on the island. According to my guidebook, it has been used by people to produce besoms. The only place where these palms could be found seemed to be Zingaro National Park, and so I left my small identification book for palms (M. Gibbons, The Palm Identifier) at home.

When I arrived at the airport in the south of Palermo, many palms welcomed me. My heart beat faster even though they were "only the common" Phoenix and some Chamaerops humilis. After a small snack, I was given a sightseeing-tour in town, even though I was very tired. On weekends, all the streets in town are blocked. Nevertheless, the Palermitans do not want to leave their cars at home, so the average speed was 20 km/h. Only near the roads and in some plant-boxes could I discover some palms; among them there were already several species that were new for me. As I did not have my identification-book with me, I took pictures and tried to describe them amateurishly. I will come back to this later.

My hosts referred me to a square called Piazza Castelnuovo, from which I could reach all the important places in Palermo, and which also happened to be my bus-station. Of course the Piazza struck me especially because of the palms I found there, including Phoenix dactylifera and P. canariensis, which were planted a long time ago. I slept my fill the following day and later was taken to town on Giovanni‘s motorbike. He left me at Piazza Castelnuovo, and I had two hours to look around the place. I scrutinized closely the plants I had only briefly seen the day before, noting that they were quite tall. As I am not able to estimate very well, I can only say that they were as tall as the buildings around them that had four or five floors. It was very easy to find seeds but quite difficult to distinguish the species. Along with small dates, I also picked up some red to dark red fruits of the same size. I knew these fruits from my trip to Lanzarote as Phoenix canariensis, but here they were bigger. I could not find out if it were dates that were not yet ripe, or fruits from Phoenix canariensis. Because of their appearance, I would take them to be the latter.

On the way to Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, I discovered two fan palms I had never seen before. They were about 3.5 m high; the trunk was massive, thickened at its base; the fans were divided to their half, were green, quite hard and stable against wind; at the trunk there were stigmas of leaves to be seen, and several inflorescences that did not hang over very far. With the help of Tobias W. Spanner, I have identified these as Brahea edulis. The palms might have had fruit, but I could not find any seeds on the ground.

On the next day, my "archeological heart" beat faster, and as Giovanni‘s sister wanted to test her new car, we made a trip to Solunto which is in the east of Palermo. While the remains of the Greeks and Romans were meager, there were many bushes of Chamaerops humilis. The antique town lay on an arid hill that formed the boundary of a fruitful plain. The distance to the sea was not more than 150 m. Today's settlements are directly at the coast or in the fruitful plain. Here, oranges, lemons, olives and many other fruits are cultivated. The arid hill‘s poor agricultural conditions allow enough space for the Chamerops humilis to grow. As described in the article about Chamaerops humilis at the Costa Blanca in Spain (Chamerops 27, Costa del Chamerops by Dr. Neil Butler), the plants here are small and grow in compact bushes. They reach a height of not more than 1.6 m and often grow to a diameter of 2-3 m. There are also great numbers of seeds, as there are no sheep or goats that could do any harm to the plants in this area. So, in the foreseeable future, the whole environment ensures the local stock of palms.

Near Trapani, 75 km west of Palermo, the situation is similar. The coast is interrupted again and again by mountains and arid hills, which are not proper at all for agricultural usage. Between them are areas of agriculture and tourism, where one can find only cultivated palms. The very old village Erice, not far from Trapani, also lies on a mountain near the coast. Fruitful plains surround it. The partly preserved Punic wall forms the boundary of the village and there are no modern buildings outside the old town. On the slopes, which are sometimes very steep, numerous Chamaerops have established themselves. Even here, the stock seems not to be endangered.

At the southern coast of Sicily, there is an antique town with a wonderful location called Agrigent. The area is laid out step-like in several terraces, and has a historical character. Like nearly everywhere near the coast of Sicily, this area is also covered with the summerhouses of many modern inhabitants of Agrigent. The landscape slowly rises to a distinct stone-step, with a difference in altitude of about 5–10 m. The antique Agrigent lies on this step, which is a sort of archeological protectorate. The ground is full of stones and there are plantations of olives. In a small stripe around this stone-step, a lot of Chamaerops humilis grow. They have found room in the smallest ledges and rock-fissures. In spite of the very dry area with a maximum of sunshine, they grow splendidly. But they are a bit smaller than are those around Erice and Solunto. As there are no intruders, such as goose or sheep, and only numbers of tourists, the local stock is safe, too. Those who want to make themselves acquainted with the different conditions of Chamaerops humilis, who want to test and explore the natural location, will find good possibilities on Sicily, especially on the western side of the island.

In Palermo itself, I discovered several Chamaerops that have developed trunks. It seems to me as if this only happens when they are cultivated by human beings. This is my theory: Those Chamaerops which are cultivated as ornamental plants get more water than those that grow in their natural environment, and brown leaves are cut off. This promotes the formation of a trunk. Maybe there is one person between the palm-fans who can tell me more about that.

But now let's go back to Palermo. From my lodging I had about an hour‘s walk to the center, so I took the opportunity and went to town by different ways. At Viale Lazio, I discovered a small park with a playground and some benches. Among orange-trees, mimosas, cactus and sukkulentas, there were of course some palms. There were Syagrus romanoffiana, Washintonia robusta, Brahea sp. Chamaerops humilis, Trachycarpus fortunei (these were in bad condition; maybe it was too hot and dry), and in the shade of a small bridge, Chamaedorea. All of them were robust and very impressive. Along the streets one could sometimes find Phoenix and again and again there were Chamaerops humilis (which had formed trunks) in small front gardens. After 1.5 km on the way to the center, I discovered another garden that was larger and beautifully arranged with fountains, a bar (coffee and ice cream), a playground, and benches. Its name is Giardino Inglese. There grew some palms that were new to me, like Brahea armata for instance. Here is a short description of another palm I saw: big, massive trunk, thickened at it's base, upwards getting thinner, the pinnate leaves are green, silvery below, the spathes grow out of the bases of young leaves, the seeds have a length of about 2,5 cm, a diam. of about 1,5 cm and show three points. Even when I was back in Augsburg and tried to identify the palms, I found nothing that matched. And again I got help from Tobias Spanner in Munich. He identified them as a Butia x Jubaea hybrid. It is uncommon that they produce seeds. I found this rare palm in Giardino Garibaldi, but unfortunately, there were no seeds.

A special place for me was the botanical garden, Orto Botanico. There is an avenue with Washingtonia sp., which are quite tall, and a separate small park for palms. According to the plant signs, there were Bismarckia nobilis, Chamaerops humilis, Trachycarpus fortunei, Ravenea rivularis, Syagrus macrocarpa, Sabal yaba, Corypha gebanga, Jubaea chilensis, Phoenix reclinata, P. rupicola, P. robelenii, P. theophrastii, P. humilis, P. atlantica, P. pusilla, P. acaulis, Arenga engleri, Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, Brahea armata, Trithrinax campestris, Cocothrinax martii, Sabal beccariana, Washingtonia filferia and robusta, Trinax argentea, Dypsis pinnatifrons, Butia yatay, and so on. When writing down the last name and describing the palm, an employee of the botanical garden passed by and told me that the name on the sign was wrong and the palm is not called Butia bonneti but B. yatay. As such, I cannot guarantee that this list of names is correct. It was the first time in my life that I saw such a great number of palms in such impressive sizes and in such a variety. I was very impressed and went several times to Orto Botanico, a fact my hosts could not understand. It is nothing special for them to see palms as they are literally growing nearly everywhere in Palermo. I really recommend Palermo to anyone who has just started studying palms, and I am sure there is still much to discover.

Finally, I would like comment on the reputation of Palermo as the center of the Mafia. In my experience, it is made to seem worse than it really is. I always put my camera in my backpack and money inside the pockets of my jacket, and nothing was stolen from me, even though I walked alone through empty lanes.

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