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Rain, Rain, and more of the same!

John Kenahan, Goring, U.K.
Chamaerops No.47 - published online 25-06-2003

- Left: Native to vast plains like this one in Corrientes, Argentina, which
occasionally experiences flooding, Butia yatay is always found on well drained and well aerated, sandy soils.
Photo: Martin Gibbons and Tobias W. Spanner
- Right: Rain, rain, rain and more of the same!
Photos: John Kenahan

Those were the circumstances that faced those of us living in the British Isles in the winter and spring of 2000/2001 and which produced the highest rainfall since records began over 300 years ago. Inevitably such conditions caused great damage and many people were forced to abandon their homes to the rising flood waters.

In this article I shall concentrate on the horticultural implications of the Deluge . . . and how it affected the garden of yours truly. This fairly small garden, which measures around 100 ft. by 50 ft., is situated on the West Sussex plain, an area that runs (roughly) from Shoreham in the east to Chichester in the west and lies south of the South Downs, a pleasant area of Downland, which I should explain for non-British readers actually means upland! "Downland", or the shorter form "Downs", when spelt with a capital "D" refers to chalk upland in southern England for they are a series of hills.

On purchasing the property in 1993, I soon removed most of the existing garden contents, which included a small vegetable patch, an even smaller "herbaceous border", and some out-of-control conifers, and gradually began planting my kind of plants, which include Rhododendrons, various "exotics", succulents and especially - wait for it - those most wonderful and essential jewels in the crown of any exotic garden - PALMS! The effect of the Great Deluge on the palms and other exotics in the garden was very interesting and informative, for in addition to the constant rain, there was also flooding over most of the garden for two days due to a drainage ditch bursting its banks because a nearby culvert had become blocked with debris, mainly consisting of twigs and leaves, but fortunately the flood water was neither contaminated by sea-water or even dirty water, which happened less than a mile away.

Just to make things even more interesting (!) I should explain that the soil is clay and being close to the foreshore the water table is quite high, being only a few feet below the soil surface, but variable, as is the case with all low lying regions, depending on the height of the tide, wind velocity and direction, and of course rainfall. It would not be necessary to dig very deep to make a well, which may indeed be necessary at some time in the near future, for all the climate change models predict much hotter and drier summers for those of us in southern England, and guess who lives close to the beach and in the front line of all this climate change? Yep!

The effects of the flooding in November 2000 (which covered about 70% of the garden) were not at once apparent, but shortly afterwards, in late December, Acacia dealbata, which had its root area completely submerged, dropped every single flower bud, and an Acacia baileyana "Purpurea" on slightly higher ground that had its root area 50% submerged lost 50% of the buds. I doubt if that was coincidence. I am delighted to report that there was no foliage damage to either and both are now growing and flowering well. Succulents including Agave americana, Dasylirion acrotrichum, Puya alpestris, Fasicularia bicolour and a Protea grandiceps were in the lower of my two raised beds and surrounded by water but were completely unaffected even though the lower roots of most of these would have been below water! I am very pleased with these raised beds, which are of my own design, totally radical and very different from the usual such structures. I hope to write about them in a future article.

There was no damage whatsoever to the two Olea europa or even the shallow rooted Rhododendrons, although the normally prolific, sweet scented R. loderii "King George" dropped all its flower buds but one.

Having kept you in suspense for long enough I shall now tell you about the palms! Those above the standing water, which include Trachycarpus fortunei (planted in 1993), Chamaerops humilis (1993) Butia capitata (1994), Brahea armata (1994), and B.edulis (1997), were fine though the ground was extremely wet with all that rain and I was particularly pleased that the Braheas managed to tolerate those conditions, which they surely could not have done if they had been newly planted.

In the flooded area two specimens of Phoenix canariensis (1995 and 1997) were undamaged, although one produced three inflorescences the following June whilst still very juvenile and only two metres tall. In contrast, a Butia capitata (1996) which had flowered the previous two years did not produce a single inflorescence but the foliage was fine and the strong growth (yes - Butias can be fast!) continues and this year it flowered as normal. A specimen of Acoelorraphe wrightii (1999), which lost its five foot main trunk in the winter of 1999 (frost damage), was not worried by the rain and the four or five small suckers are growing on well, and I reckon this interesting palm is surely worth a try in very mild areas such as central London, though a neutral or low pH, (acid) soil is crucial.

Despite these extreme, severe, and unexpected conditions, only one palm-a newly planted Butia yatay (August 2000)-died: suddenly in April 2001 due to flooding. Yes, just a single casualty! I can assure you that I never anticipated flooding (it had not happened in the fifty years since the house was built) but I had expected heavy winter rain, and hotter summers due to global warming and therefore my planting is done gradually, rather than being rushed, and is still continuing. Apart from the Butia yatay, all the other plants were well established and had the extensive root systems to cope without too much stress; if the flood had continued for longer, however, it could have been a very different outcome.

What are the lessons for palm and exotic plant lovers? If, perhaps, you are new to this wonderful palmy way of life and full of enthusiasm to rush out into the back yard and plant everything all at once then my advice for those with a temperate or continental climate is DON'T! Instead, plant gradually over three or four years or more, and should a calamity occur, such as a surprise hard frost or even record high temperatures and drought, then all your more established palms and exotica will have a good chance of survival and you won't be facing total wipeout in year one. Newly planted palms and exotics will be badly stressed by all such extreme events. So, my palm friends, don't put all your eggs into one basket; just prepare your ground carefully, relax, take your time . . . and be happy.


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