Idiot’s Guide to Palms in Britain

By Paul Rose, 10 Green Acres Road, Kings Norton, Birmingham B38 8NH, England
Chamaerops No.49 - published online 04-11-2004

Left: Among giants. Enormous Redwoods in California's Giant Sequoia National Park dwarf the casual observer.
Photo by Tobias W. Spanner
Middle:Paul Rose's phantastic garden in summer.
Right:Paul Rose's phantastic garden in winter.
Photos by Paul Rose

My story starts probably like most, with foreign holidays, in my case the Maldives in 1990 when no one had heard of them, including the travel agent (fortunately the pilot had). It was a 14-hour flight stopping at Dubai, then Sri Lanka and finally the Maldives. This was then followed by a three-hour boat trip. On arrival I was greeted with what can only be described as paradise. Forget the Caribbean; this was true paradise. Water temperatures in the 80s (over 27žC) and air temperatures likewise, white powder sand, deserted beaches, and about 1200 small coral islands approximately 600 miles south of Sri Lanka with zero crime. The Maldives actually have few palms; in fact, I’ve only ever seen the coconut palm, but it was the overall effect of lush green and huge leaves that obviously stamped itself through the bone between my ears.

Back in reality (sinks into depression mode) and on my return I started to investigate the possibilities of a “tropical” garden and stumbled over the Palm Centre, which really was the only place at the time selling palms apart from a few small Cornish nurseries that I also knew of. I ordered what I thought was a horrendously expensive Chamaerops, Butia, and Trachycarpus (hilariously about £40 each). I cleared the entire garden using the famed “slash and burn” technique, although most of the burning was in fact the remains of some old pallets that the previous owner thought made a good fence (so good, in fact, he also constructed the garage out of it!). I decided on my slabs and on borders of 5-6 feet, which would surround the lawn area in the middle, dug down 2 feet deep around this entire border, and dumped in 20+ tons of half topsoil half sand and gravel for what I was told must be good drainage (I’ll come back to drainage later).

I then stuffed the plants in the ground (technical term: “carefully planted”), stood back and waited. And waited and waited (drifts into coma). The following couple of years led me to believe that palms, here in Birmingham, were not going to be in any way fast growing. It was at this point that I realized that by the time I was about 145 years old I would, in fact, have amazing specimens! Thoroughly demoralized I started to enquire after larger specimens. This was a time when a lot of palms were just being brought in by the Palm Centre in larger sizes in decent quantities, and that were, relatively speaking, reasonably priced. No more 3-foot high girl’s blouse tiddlers [Editor’s rough translation for non-Brits: “wimpy small fish”] for me, then, and I launched into a frenzy of “BIG” buying. All this was done after seeing no damage at all to the smaller palms over the several years that I’d had them, and so I presumed that they would in fact grow and survive.

The first biggies were the safe ones: Butia capitata with a base diameter of about 18 inches and 7 feet overall; then Trachys, as many as I could get, cheap from the Palm Centre at roughly £100 each for about six feet (1.8 metres for Europhiles) of trunk; and Chamaerops humilis with 24 inches (60 cm) of trunk and a diameter of approximately 10 inches (25 cm). None had any problems with winter temperatures down to -6žC (21žF) but the Trachys didn’t like the wind tunnel at the end of the garden and were subsequently moved some years later. Getting more adventurous (or stupid, some would say), I then went even more barking [Editor’s translation for non-Brits: “insane,” short for “barking mad”] and went after anything that may have had a chance, half a chance, or even no chance! All were of a good size, i.e. six-foot (1.8 metres) Brahea armata, 4-foot (1.2 metres) trunk Trithrinax campestris, Butia yatay with 4-foot (1.2 metres) trunk, etc, etc.

All was well with most of them, growing slowly but steadily. I added to the plants anything that took my fancy, so long as it was “BIG”, as time was the limiting factor. Then the deaths started occurring: Brahea armata died just after winter and after pushing out some spear, Phoenix canariensis was trashed by wind and mushed in the middle, Dicksonia fibrosa, Cyathea dealbata, Syagrus romanzoffiana . . . (what idiot told me to try that one? Oh, um, me!). However, all of the other plants besides these did extremely well considering I feared total devastation, not only of plants but also of wallet. Eventually I ripped out all the grass, as there was lot of wasted space (and the mower was packed up anyway; well, that was quite a good excuse). By this time, of course, I was hooked. I have added to the garden over the last few years but basically what you see in the pictures is no more than 4 years old, the smaller plants having been in pots for some years before that, and then in the ground.

These are the things you need to know before going down the tropical path (with palms) in Britain that I wasn’t told:

1. Britain is mostly sopping wet and has cool summers, which means things grow slowly (I should’ve worked that one out myself).

2. Any big palm will almost certainly have been grown in a field and will not grow well for several years while it re-establishes its roots (frighteningly expensive = pot grown).

3. Drainage is not as important for some species as others, i.e. Trachys will grow in clay with ease and lap it up along with Chamaerops humilis, and Butia doesn’t seem to mind it either as long as it’s not a bog.

4. Chamaerops and Trachys seem to grow in any position, i.e. total shade, north facing, in clay, etc. They really are that tough.

5. Most palms like wind-free conditions to look their best, and bear in mind that as they grow slowly they can soon look a mess without it.

6. They are a lot hardier than most will tell you. Here -6žC (21žF) does almost nothing damage-wise for 95% of them and they are unprotected except by high fences and tall bamboos to slow the wind. Smaller plants will probably not be as hardy.

7. For the ones that don’t like wet winters (Brahea, etc.) try and put a plastic cover over them to keep them dry (such as a golf umbrella). Remember it’s not the cold they can’t stand; it’s the wet with it.

8. When buying palms, don’t go for the largest. Go for the ones with the thickest, most cardboard-type leaves and with a good set of spears in the crown pushing out (the more the better for fastest growth). The reason my Brahea and Phoenix died was that they were grown under glass and had stretched petioles and were generally not as tough as ones grown outdoors.

9. There is a limit with all plants, but you’ll have to find your own. My advice: move to central London or Cornwall or anywhere within 100 yards of the sea, preferably west/south coast, for maximum growth rates.

10. Spending a thousand pounds on plants? Then ask for at least a 20% discount.

11. Buy at sale times at the Palm Centre, i.e. winter (you don’t get the biggest plants but in a few years no one will notice).

12. Lie through your teeth. Say you’re a landscape gardener to get a discount and print off some headed paper to suggest this. You can cleave at least 20% off most suppliers.

13. Prepare your ground as best as you possibly can and work out where your sun is for the best results. Don’t forget winter sun is the most important for quick defrosting. Take into account that it’s at a lower point in the sky in winter and things that it may clear in the summer it won’t in the winter, leaving plants in shade, whereas at the height of summer they may well get full sun.

14. High fences and screening to stop Mr. Wind.

Here’s a list of plants in the garden that have done reasonably well with temperatures down to -6ž to -7žC (21ž to 19žF) here in Birmingham:

- Brahea armata: a new specimen with a short, fat trunk, thick cardboard leaves, and short petioles has done well and is now on its 3rd leaf (in July 2003) but did get a mini greenhouse for protection last year; in 12 months, however, it will be left to fend for itself.

- Brahea edulis: despite being kept dry under my tropical hut it still got damaged at
-6žC. It has grown out with ease, but unless it puts out 2 good leaves, as opposed to 2 damaged ones so far and one good spear, it may be ditched.

- Chamaedora radicalis: a newcomer this year, biggish plant (6+ feet). This year’s experiment is leaving it in total shade.

- Chamaerops humilis: also indestructible and should be renamed “Captain Scarlet”. Will grow anywhere in any position.

- Chamaerops cerifera: another great plant for a different colour other than green. Unharmed by -6ž to -7žC (21ž to 19žF). Slower growth than its cousin but this may be because it is a smaller plant. Still manages at least 6 leaves a year.

- Butia capitata: no problems here. Its cousin, Mr. yatay, is still in the experimental stage here. It’s settling in after 3 years of being lifted but is now showing speedier growth. This plant has received some damage through the winter of 2002-2003 but it’s not major and may be due to its still limited root system.

- Trithrinax acanthocoma: doesn’t like being drowned with a hose in winter to remove snow (stupid mistake by me). Grows reasonably well though not as tough as campestris, but OK to -6žC (21žF).

- All Trachycarpus species except recent discoveries as these have yet to be tested, but wagnerianus, fortunei, takil, etc., no problems. (On martianus, see below).

- Trachycarpus martianus: a surprising success story; starts growth before any other palm after winter and has gone through -6ž to -7žC (21ž to 19žF) with very little damage. It must be under the canopy of other plants to achieve this. It is likely that I have the hardier “Nepal” variety as others tell me of total defoliation at -4žC. Mine is planted into solid clay (as in you can throw a pot with it straight out of the ground) in a north facing position with zero sun.

- Trithrinax campestris: amazing plant; doesn’t bat an eyelid at being lifted and carries on regardless. A slow grower but very wind resistant so don’t waste money on pot grown specimens.

- I have an assortment of bamboos, tree ferns and yuccas that have all taken -6ž to
-7žC (21ž to 19žF) with limited damage. I have gotten most of my plants through the Palm Centre, though some I’ve gotten for free (i.e., in a housing estate nearby that was going to be demolished were about 40 Yucca recurvifolia with trunks up to 3 feet. I asked the local council and they said, “help yourself”.) I have some smaller, more experimental plants that have to be grown on for some years, including the new Trachycarpus princeps and T. latisectus, though T. latisectus seems a bit slow at the moment.

So that just about sums up my palm history so far but watch this space as I may be on the move. I have some pictures at, which I will fully update for the winter of 2003.


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