Our Palmetum in Mallorca

By Howard Janes, hjanes@wanadoo.es
Chamaerops No.49 - published online 04-11-2004

One mile inland from the coastal holiday resorts lies the real Majorca: quiet villages untouched by tourism, farms that give up to three crops per year, olive terraced foothills, and mountains that rise higher above the pine line than any in Britain. Although snow laden from early to mid-morning one day last February, this was the first time in 20 years. Out of the mountains, I have not known the temperature to fall below zero in ten years, and frosts are rare. The Island is still sufficiently affected by the Atlantic weather patterns not to be too hot in summer or too cold in winter.

Corn is grown between the almond trees, and sheep glean the stubble and are fed the hay and carob beans during the summer months when little grows except palms and weeds. Citrus fruits will survive in all but the worst droughts, but thrive with a little irrigation, as do the strawberries, vegetables, and Majorcan potatoes grown in the fertile Sa Pobla plain. Chamaerops humilis, which abound in rocky areas of the foothills, are the only indigenous palms. But the name of the capital city, Palma, was taken from the ancient Roman settlement of Campa Palmeria. This implies that the Phoenix dactylifera that are commonly seen in singles and pairs towering above properties throughout the Island have been a feature of Majorca for a very long time.

Four years ago, we moved to a small farm in a fertile valley just as it leaves the central foothills. The valley drains one side of Massanella, a mountain higher than Ben Nevis, so, although the torrent only flows after storms, there is always plenty of ground water readily available from our own medieval well. After we had updated the 1970s modernisation of the very old stone house, we set-to in the front garden, in which we inherited five Date Palms. We understand that these trees were giving abundant fruit well over 50 years ago, and now they dominate the skyline.

Despite regular rotavating (the local equivalent of mowing the lawn), it was not long before we began to find self-seeded palmlets popping up, several below the date palms, and then a few others below a smaller Livistonia chinensis in the side garden. In the spring of last year, I potted several of each, which, a year on, seem to be doing well even though they have remained in the open, even in the poor weather earlier last year.

Replacement Date Palms are now rare here, but any number of Phoenix canariensis and Washingtonia filifera of all sizes can be found in every garden centre, as, of course, can the ubiquitous Chamaerops humilis. There are, however, occasional alternatives, notably Butia capitata, Brahea armata, Livistonia chinensis and Trachycarpus fortunei (still known here as Chamaerops excelsa), a few 3 ft. specimens of each of which we have now established in the garden. But it was also last spring that I discovered a few three or four year old palms that a garden centre found difficult to sell, because they were small, slightly more expensive, and of locally unknown species.

Being a collector rather than a botanist, and being inspired by a cactus and palm garden open to the public near Ses Salines in the southeast of the Island, I began to have dreams of converting, little by little, a walled orange orchard of about an acre into a palmetum. I bought the five plants as an investment in my future ambitions, and they have also rewarded me by surviving the winter in the open.

In April last year, we returned from England with a further 22 one and two year old plants of different species. These have all been placed in their pots in a shaded position in the ground as insulation against the summer heat, and, several weeks later, seem to be doing well with regular watering, that, on our visit to England in August, we bought a further 39 species. All arrived safely, and, with winter in mind, were located them in a light, sheltered porch to await the new season. Starting last spring, I have begun to excavate for a path between the orange and tangerine trees. I have formed the base of the path with barrows full of stones painstakingly raked from the soil in preparation for permanent sprinklers and grass seeding.

While I expect the overall project to take ten years, by which time today’s seedlings should be becoming quite impressive, I was, of course, impatient to capitalise on this year’s growing season, and see some reward for our hard work. We have, therefore, enjoyed ourselves touring the garden centres, and have chosen a Bismarckia nobilis, a Howea forsteriana, a Ravenea rivularis, a Sabal mexicana, an Archontophoenix alexandrae, and a Dypsis decaryi, varying between 2 and 8 ft. high. Together with an existing ex-potted Phoenix roebelenii and a small triple Washingtonia filifera, these have now been planted with various succulents, Yucca, and Cordyline, all to good effect. Despite four months without rain, regular watering gave good results, and all except the Howea have taken and are thriving.

I know that we are taking some risks, but, after all, nothing ventured nothing gained. We now have over 100 different species in store, mostly with warm-temperate potential, and more to come from Valencia. Even with a few failures, there should be an interesting show eventually. I shall write again next year with the interim results.

P.S. From the same garden centre, but at different times, I bought two seemingly identical small palms marked Livistonia fulva and L. nitida. Can anyone please tell me whether either exists, or is it more likely that they are both Brahea nitida?


Livistona fulva and L. nitida are both valid species from Australia:

L. nitida, the Carnavon Palm is a beautiful and stately palm. It has moderately costapalmate, glossy, bright green fan leaves in a spherical, moderately dense crown. The leaf segments are lax and deeply divided and give the leaves a slightly weeping appearance. The ringed trunks can reach up to 25 or 30 m (80 to 100 ft.) in height. L. nitida grows in the mountains of southern Queensland to an altitude of about 1000 m (3300 ft.), and, in cultivation, is fast growing, tolerant of drought and quite heavy frost, and easy to maintain.

Livistona fulva is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful of all Livistona. It has a very different appearance with an orderly crown of circular fan leaves with stiffly held segments, somewhat reminiscent of the Argentinean Copernicia alba maybe. A particularly attractive feature is the striking golden or orange brown fur on the leaf undersides. It is slower growing than the above, but just as easy and robust. Ed.

 

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