My Exotic Garden

By Fredy Ruethemann, „Casa Amazonia,“ Via Righetto 6992, Cimo, Switzerland
Chamaerops No. 52 - published online 12-03-2006

From left to right: The three-headed Dicksonia in a shady place behind the house. Large Dicksonias with orchids. Chamaerops humilis „Vulcano“ enjoys a place in full sun.
Photos by Fredy Ruethemann

From left to right: A jungle of Trachycarpus, Brahea and Rhapidophyllum. Brahea armata in front of two Trachycarpus fortunei. To the right a trunk of Washingtonia. A young Trachycarpus latisectus. Trachycarpus martianus doing exceptionally well in my garden.
Photos by Fredy Ruethemann

From left to right: Trachycarpus oreophilus, maturing slowly but surely. A robust Trachycarpus takil, obviously doing well. Trachycarpus wagnerianus holds its robust leaves for a long time. My largest Trachycarpus wagnerianus.
Photos by Fredy Ruethemann

For the past 30 years or so I have felt at my best in botanical gardens. The more tropical the better. I started my garden 23 years ago here in Cimo, Ticino, above Lake Lugano, at 460 metres above sea level on the southern edge of the Alps. At that time, the old American School in Lugano had been torn down and the land sold. It was an enormous plot of land with many Trachycarpus fortunei of all sizes, camelia, azalea, Rhododendron, passion flowers, Musa basjoo, and Yucca gloriosa up to 3 metres high. A luxurious retirement home was built on this site and the gorgeous plants and trees had to be given away. Young and strong, I took advantage of this opportunity and was able to plant my garden with them.

In 1990, I heard that a young Swiss-German named Andy Peter was selling cold-hardy palms here in southern Switzerland. Thus, I came upon my first exotic plants. At that time, Trachycarpus wagnerianus was completely unknown here. In the meantime, this Trachycarpus wagnerianus has grown from a „baby“ into a stately 3.6 metre palm. A Rhapidophyllum hystrix of 20 cm grew into a 1.8 metre shrub and bears ripe seeds each year. What a pleasure it was when I discovered the first real Trachycarpus „khasianus“ (= T. martianus „Khasia Hills“) offered for sale. After years of cultivation and care, it now stands at exactly 2.9 metres. It is so beautiful and perfect that it could compete with a tropical Licuala grandis.

Now, to my absolute favourite palm: a Trachycarpus oreophilus at a proud 1.9 metres. Marco Pfister from Banco (known from the EPS summer meeting) bought 500 T. oreophilus seeds from Tobias Spanner in 1998. Only a portion (around 40 seedlings) sprouted after several months. Then they began to ail and a few even died. I planted seven of these poor things in a pot in my greenhouse (kept covered from March to November, then enclosed in bubble plastic). They recovered magnificently, so I bedded two of them out in a wind-protected, warm, half-shaded place in the garden. However, winter protection with wood pallets and bubble plastic is necessary here. In the spring, they are heavily fertilised. This is the recipe for gorgeous palms to thrive. All leaves are stiff and vertical and do not open to a full 360º circle but only to 90º as is often the case with Trachycarpus martianus. The contrast of the upper side of the leaf (dark green) to the under side (shimmering blue-green) is simply fabulous!

The largest Trachycarpus latisectus in my garden is exactly 1.4 metres high. T. latisectus are very sensitive when young and potted. Once planted out, they thrive under the same conditions as Trachycarpus martianus. Even when they grow perfectly, however, I never find them to be as beautiful and impressive as T. martianus or T. oreophilus. Of the real T. nanas, I now have three 20cm seedlings that have so far proven to be very sensitive. They are a bit yellowish and grow very slowly.

It has been my wish for many years to have the entire genus Trachycarpus in my palm collection. Through a Belgian man named Albert Reuten-Wijnaud of Riemst, my dream appears to have come true. In February 2004, I finally obtained seeds of Trachycarpus princeps, as well as T. sp. Manipur. Disappointed because I had not germinated any by October, I wanted to learn everything about Trachycarpus princeps and T. sp. Manipur on the Internet. I discovered that it was absolutely normal for these seeds to require up to two years or more to germinate (if they germinate!).

The nook behind the house, planted with large Dicksonia antarctica in a moss bed, lets us travel back in time to bygone ages. Impatiens provide colour dabs set in green, lush moss, and various orchids adorn the black stem of the tree ferns. The Dicksonia thrive so well here that, in July, the roots start to grow on the entire stem. The new, rust-red, small, glass-like roots thicken the tree fern each year. Six years ago, a Dicksonia with a 60cm stem was thrown out by a nursery when they believed it to be dead after a very cold winter. Since I know that Dicksonia can survive up to nine months without growth, I planted it in my garden. A month later, many small leaves could already be seen. In the year after that, it became clear that the plants had developed three new crowns. All of them continued to grow. Will this occur more often? Perhaps it was a result of frost damage to the bud?

There are many other palms growing in my garden. I really find the combination of Chamaerops humilis „Vulcano“ and C. humilis var. cerifera with other, cold-tolerant palms such as Jubaea, Sabal minor, Tritrinax campestris and Chamaedorea radicalis, to be more exciting than all the city parks on the Mediterranean with their hundreds of Phoenix and Washingtonia.

Here is some general advice on the care of sensitive palms such as Trachycarpus latisectus, T. takil, T. nanus, T. martianus, and T. oreophilus, especially for young plants of these species:
1. Prune the leaves only when they are completely dead, so that the plant is not unnecessarily stressed and holds more green leaves.
2. Remove the grass from around the stem of all palms that stand on lawns, at least in the area of the tree‘s crown. I cover the bare soil with 2-3cm of pebbles so that no weeds grow at the base of the stem and over the roots. Early in the spring, I add a slow-release fertiliser (Osmocote Exact) between the pebbles. I find that while the lawn must be regularly watered, many palms do not like to be wet at the base of the trunk that often. Fungal infections and stem decay, as often inflict Brahea armata, are prevented to a great degree in this way.

Some time ago, I began planting a hillside acquired a few years ago in front of my house. It is very steep but a sunny spot. It was necessary to brace the embankment with walls and lay paths (it was back-breaking work). However, it was worth it. I was very successful here with Butia eriospata and Trachycarpus takil planted on the hillside. In addition, this spring I planted Sabal bermuda, Sabal x texensis, Phoenix theophrastii, Trachycarpus martianus, T. latisectus and T. wagnerianus. Next spring, I will plant a large Dasylirion and a few other plants. Since Jubaea seedlings in a pot are always problematic, I wanted to know how they would behave if I planted them outdoors straight away each year. Amazingly, there were no problems, no fungal infections, no spots - nothing.

By the way, I also rent a holiday home, ideal for two people. Anyone desiring a wonderful and inexpensive holiday in Switzerland can learn more by sending me an e-mail to: or calling 0041-91-6053902


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