Palms from Seed – A Beginner’s Experience
By Lucian Morris 33, Trafalgar Drive, Flitwick, Bedfordshire, MK45 1EF, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 52 - published online 12-03-2006
I have been the proud owner of a (very) pot-bound Trachycarpus fortunei for about three years, but it wasn’t until my wife and I moved to a more permanent location last December that I became seriously interested in palms. In the spring I planted my T. fortunei and a Chamaerops humilis that I acquired at the famous (well, it’s famous if you live in London) Columbia Road Flower Market. Both of these palms now reside in a flowerbed in my south-facing front garden. Neither is huge but both have grown well this year.
Watching these two palms go from strength to strength got me into thinking that perhaps I could do with a few more. I started to look about but decided that to buy all the palms I wanted would cost me a fortune. The only alternative was to grow them myself. I set about acquiring seeds in earnest with the goal of growing palms that should survive outside (I know that some of the below are borderline in southern England).
After doing some meticulous research (much of which came from germination comments on the rarepalmeseeds.com website) I opted to use a ‘peat + vermiculite in a baggie’ method for germination. Essentially, you mix the ingredients and fill in a zip lock baggie and add enough water to make the mix just moist. The seeds are first soaked for a day or two in tap water and are then added to the mix and placed in a suitable germination location (see species by species descriptions).
Once seeds have germinated they are moved to a ‘Root Trainers’ potting tray where they can be individually potted in tall slim ‘pots’. The media used here is peat and gravel to allow for good drainage. I would recommend ‘Root Trainers’ style potting trays to anyone (they aren’t paying me for this, honestly!).
I got hold of, and set about germinating, the following seeds:
Of the Phoenix species the easiest to get hold of was P. dactylifera. On a visit to my parents I retrieved the stones of dates they had been eating. The seeds were cleaned off by soaking the seed and then rubbing them with tissue paper. I also purchased Phoenix roebelenii (Mekong) and Phoenix theophrastii. The P. roebelenii and P. dactylifera were put in the airing cupboard (where the hot water tank resides) which is fairly constantly in the high twenties Celsius. It is worth noting that the airing cupboard is completely dark 99% of the time. With P. theophrastii being a more ‘temperate’ palm (from Crete), I reasoned it would germinate at a lower temperature and so left the seeds on a bookcase at about 18° Celsius. Each of these species proved to be moderately successful. Germination rates were not high but were sufficient for me to get a few healthy seedlings from 10 or so seeds. Germination took from two weeks to three months.
Of the Trachycarpus species, I tried T. fortunei, T. latisectus and T. wagnerianus. Each species had its own germination bag and was left at room temperature (about 18° Celsius) to germinate. T. fortunei has proved to be incredibly successful with almost 100% germination. T. latisectus proved less so with about 40% and T. wagnerianus only produced 20% germination. Looking at the seed I believe that the T. wagnerianus may have been over-cleaned and the kernel was supplied without any form of seed coating. This probably contributed heavily to the mass rotting that occurred. I later lost the two seedlings, I suspect, to rot after potting on to the seedling tray. Germination took from two weeks to three months.
Of the Butias, I tried my hand at B. paraguayensis and B. eriospatha. Both species were placed into the airing cupboard. I made one very large mistake with the B. paraguayensis seeds by throwing away the ‘duds’ too soon. After getting three seeds to germinate (out of 10) and then nothing, I assumed that the remaining seeds weren’t viable and binned them. Watching the B. eriospatha continue to germinate sporadically for the last six months has confirmed what an idiot I was. The B. eriospatha is currently at 40% germination and rising.
Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera
The Chamaerops humilis var. cerfiera seeds were germinated at room temperature alongside my Trachycarpus species. These seeds have proven almost as successful and I had about an 80% germination rate over the course of about six weeks.
Yucca rostrata was germinated in the airing cupboard. This species appears to be a prolific germinator. From 10 seeds I initially got, I believe, 12 germinations (I suspect I got some bonus seeds in the packet) all in the space of about four weeks.
I have recently acquired four seeds of Cycas panzhihuaensis from Chiltern Seeds in the UK. I am really excited about these cycads as, legend has it, they may be hardy in the UK. Again, I have used the baggie method in an airing cupboard and so far I have one seedling and another seed has split. This has taken less than one month from sowing. I reckon that in a few years these prehistoric beasties should look great, sitting amongst some palms.
I tried this banana in a heated propagator next to a north-facing window. I used the same mix as for the palms and can confidently state that I got 0% germination. That’s right, nothing happened. I am unsure as to whether I will try to germinate a banana again as I only really want one plant. I may just buy a young plant and try to forget my germination woes.
I am now about eight months down the line from first starting my germination efforts and have in the region of 40 plants. I think that I have spent about £100 in the process – more than half of which went on seeds. I need to point out that I have lost a number of seedlings, principally Phoenix species, over the intervening period which I suspect is either down to watering, lighting (not sure which) or planting depth (at least one seedling was planted too low). However, I still have enough of most species to make me pretty confident that I will have enough palms for my purposes and perhaps a few to sell on.
Many of the palms are now growing their second leaf and beginning to look a bit more like palms and a bit less like thick leaf blades. I am hoping that by next summer I will have three leaf seedlings and I will then start to look at moving them outside.
Recently I have been forced to move my seedlings, as my young son becomes more mobile. The new location is pretty dark and I am investigating ways in which I can resolve this. To that end I have now purchased a propagating lighting kit to suspend over the seedlings and my experiments in this area may become the subject of a later article.