Idiots 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
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 27C) 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, Ive 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 (Ill 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
girls blouse tiddlers [Editors 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 Id 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 -6C (21F) but the
Trachys didnt 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 [Editors 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
1. Britain is mostly sopping wet and has cool summers, which means things grow slowly (I shouldve 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 doesnt seem to mind it either as long as its not
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 -6C (21F) 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 dont like wet winters (Brahea, etc.) try and put a plastic cover over them to keep
them dry (such as a golf umbrella). Remember its not the cold they cant stand; its the wet
8. When buying palms, dont 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 youll 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 dont get the biggest plants but in a few years
no one will notice).
12. Lie through your teeth. Say youre 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. Dont
forget winter sun is the most important for quick defrosting. Take into account that its at a lower point
in the sky in winter and things that it may clear in the summer it wont 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.
Heres a list of plants in the garden that have done reasonably well with temperatures down to -6 to -7C
(21 to 19F) 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
-6C. 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 years 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 -6 to
-7C (21 to 19F). 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. Its
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 its not major and may be due to its still limited root system.
- Trithrinax acanthocoma: doesnt 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 -6C (21F).
- 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 -6 to -7C (21 to 19F) 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 -4C. 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; doesnt bat an eyelid at being lifted and carries on regardless.
A slow grower but very wind resistant so dont waste money on pot grown specimens.
- I have an assortment of bamboos, tree ferns and yuccas that have all taken -6 to
-7C (21 to 19F) with limited damage. I have gotten most of my plants through the Palm Centre, though some
Ive 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 http://community.webshots.com/user/pmrose18,
which I will fully update for the winter of 2003.
04-06-20 - 11:48GMT
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