A Lifetime of Experience

Eric Speybroek has run his nursery in Belgium for many years, and was one of the earliest suppliers of The Palm Centre. His wealth of knowledge and experience was an inspriatiuon for me in the early days of palm popularity. Now Erich tells his own story.
Eric van Speybroeck, Zevergem (De Pinte), Belgium
Chamaerops No.42 - 2001

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Picture 1 & 2: Trachycarpus fortunei, flowering in the garden.
Picture 3: Chamaerops humilis has grown into a dense group.
Picture 4: A young Jubaea chilensis.
Picture 5: Trachycarpus wagnerianus near the house.
Picture 6: Chamaerops humilis protected against the house.

My interest in palms started when I was still young, in the late 50's. It probably happened as it happens for most of us: views of postcards with palm trees in the background, magazines with palm pictures, and films shot in a sunshine climate where hundreds or thousands of palms grow happily in a place that looks like paradise.

I have always been fascinated with the image of palm trees. I don't know exactly why, except that they seem to express something completely different from other, ordinary trees; they look so unique, and when fully grown, are really majestic.

I can even recall the specific moment when I decided that I would grow palms. In 1957 I left my home, a small village near Ghent in Belgium, for a business trip in Italy. After having crossed France, I arrived on the other side of Mont Blanc in the Italian town Aosta. When I was driving my car from Aosta towards Ivrea, my attention was suddenly drawn to something that looked like a palm tree at least 500m away. When I got closer, I saw the characteristic stem of a palm tree with a big crown of leaves, planted very close to the wall of a house. This palm tree was later identified as being a Trachycarpus fortunei, but 40 years ago, this name was practically not known. At that time, "Chamaerops excelsa" was used, though we now know this species does not exist. (There is, of course, a Chamaerops humilis, which is completely different). From that moment on, after seeing that a palm tree could grow in such an inhospitable region, I decided that I would grow palms.

I started a nursery in 1963 under the name of "Plantimpex," and soon grew and commercialized Howea forsteriana, an indoor palm tree appreciated for its durability and ease of cultivation.

I still remember the first two Trachycarpus fortunei I planted in my garden in May, 1965. They were imported from Spain through a local nurseryman, and grew very well for 20 years only to be destroyed in the 1985/86 winter, which was the coldest winter in the last 35 years. That January had a minimum temperature of -18°C which lasted approximately ten days, followed by a two week spell of very mild weather, and followed again in February by another ten days in which the minimum temperature was as low as -19° C.

I planted more Trachycarpus fortunei between 1965 and 1980, and a lot of those palms survived that winter, although they all suffered from the severe cold spell. In February, 1967, I planted about ten T. fortunei, all 3 to 5m high and imported directly from Italy. They all grew well until 1985 when they were mostly killed during that infamous winter. In the spring of 1975 most palms were in full bloom, and my surprise came in the summer of 1976 when I discovered some small palms only a few centimeters high growing in the shadows of the big ones. They survived the winter of 1985 and by now have reached 3 1/2 to 4m with trunks 2 1/2 to 3m high.

I could not stay with just one genera and species, of course, even though I still consider Trachycarpus fortunei to be the best palm tree for our region. I believe it even grows better here than in warmer regions, such as the south of France, Italy, or Spain, since it prefers a mild climate without extremes and a lot of water.

In 1959, I heard about the International Palm Society, which had been created in the U.S. in April, 1956. Through their quarterly publication Principes (which became Palms in January, 1999), I learned about a lot of other hardy palm trees, such as Trachycarpus wagnerianus, Chamaerops humilis, Rhapidophyllum hystrix, Sabal minor and Sabal palmetto, Butia capitata, Jubaea chilensis, Brahea armata, and so on.

I started trying these palms as early as 1971. Most of them, except T. wagnerianus and R. hystrix, are not as cold hardy as T. fortunei, but can still be grown here with a minimum of care. This means a south, southeast or southwest exposure and protection from cold northerly winds, which may include some protection with straw, jute, or a bag in very cold winters. Believe me, most of them grow very well and remain in perfect condition most of the time. While a very severe winter might partially destroy them or eventually kill them, many of the palms I planted between 1971 and 1980 are still growing well.

Several new species of Trachycarpus were introduced some years ago by Martin Gibbons and Toby Spanner, who have done a lot of research on palm hardiness. These species, including T. takil, T. oreophilus, T. martianus, T. nanus, T. princeps, and T. latisectus, all come from the mountainous regions of or around the Himalayas in China, India, Nepal, and Thailand. Their cold hardiness has not been fully tested, however, since most palms are still young and small.

So what conclusions can be drawn from a man with 35 years of experience, who is first a true palm lover and second a palm grower? I have learned quite a lot about caring for and growing palms since I started growing them, and while there have been regular losses in severe weather conditions, this means nothing in comparison to the pleasure you feel when you succeed at something you love. To help palm lovers like myself succeed, we now have regular publications and books on growing palms from all over the world. In Chamaerops, for instance, there have been several articles by palm enthusiasts about palms that are now grown in countries where you would not suspect them to grow, such as Austria, Azebaidjan, Bulgaria, Crimea, Georgia, Germany, Holland, and Scandinavia. In terms of cities, a lot of Trachycarpus fortunei, among others, have recently been planted in Paris, and I predict that London will soon be the capital of palms, as you see them everywhere.

Since the 1990's, "Plantimpex" has been transformed into a "Palmeraie" with several thousands of palms of all sizes. Most are Trachycarpus fortunei and rather small, but there are also some specimens with up to 2 to 3m of stem. Other palms available in smaller quantities are Trachycarpus wagnerianus, Rhapidophyllum hystrix, Chamaerops humilis, Sabal minor and Sabal palmetto, Butia capitata, and Brahea armata--enough to transform an ordinary garden into a luxuriant palm haven. With palms, you can completely change your garden, or even create an exotic corner in or around terraces, patios, swimming pools and so on.

As more people realize that these beautiful plants can be grown easily and in all kinds of different climates and soils, there is no doubt that the palm world will expand even more rapidly and that demand will be bigger in the near future than it has been in the past. As I write these words, I can already detect the first spathes on several Trachycarpus fortunei and Chamaerops humilis, which, in two to three weeks of warm weather, will emerge into beautiful flower stalks that will give me a lot of happiness and pleasure the whole year round. I hope that these few lines may encourage other palm enthusiasts all over Europe who have not yet, for one reason or another, started planting palms in their own gardens. Wherever you live, if you can find a southern corner that is well protected in winter, even in the coldest regions, you, too, can grow palms.

Readers Comments:

On 26-11-2001 Ian Parkin wrote:
comments on artilce:
It is always nice to relate to someone who has the same interest and dedication to growing palms that I have.Because of your 35 years experience in palm culture I would like you to answer various questions I have regarding the palms you grow.Looking at the palms you deal in reflects the palms I have in my garden.Some questions that spring to mind include:- What height can I expect my Chamaerops humilis to grow to given that I live in the North East of England.I feed them well at the beginning of every year.
I have 2 Butia capitata,both are 60 cms tall.Although I have heard that they are very hardy some of the leaves turn brown both during the sumer and the winter.These also get a good feed of mulch and chemicals every year.
Nice pictures by the way.

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