Timaru Revisited

By C.S. Jackson, 64 The Ridgeway, Westcliffe on Sea, Essex S50 8NU, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 52 - published online 12-03-2006

On the sad occasion of my father‘s sudden and unexpected death in September this year, I found myself in Temuka, South Canterbury, New Zealand, for his funeral. Even though it was only a week-long visit home from the U.K., it was still very interesting for me to take note of the late winter conditions prevailing while I was there. My father was the gentleman who spent many hours collecting the now well known seeds of Phoenix canariensis ‚Timaru‘ from the large trees in and around Timaru‘s Caroline bay. He would then clean them, dry them and send them to me here in the U.K. for me to distribute around the U.K. and the world. The weather conditions whilst in South Canterbury were enlightening and gave a further boost to my opinion of how hardy the Phoenix palms from this part of New Zealand really are.

Temuka is a small town just 10 miles north of Timaru on the main north/south highway and is about 5 miles inland from the coast. It supports some really quite impressive specimens of Phoenix canariensis, both large and small. At the time of my visit they were all looking healthy but yellowed from the cold of a particularly harsh winter New Zealand experienced in 2004. Even Auckland experienced serious frost and Christchurch was under snow for two days. Even in late winter (early September) I found the nights to be absolutely bitter. The first two nights I was there, the temperature plunged down to -4°C with accompanying hard frost. The remaining nights of my visit were somewhat milder, thankfully. I remarked to my mother that I had forgotten how cold the nights could be there. The day time, on the other hand, was sunny and reasonably warm (approximately 15°C) but as soon as the sun set, down came a very heavy dew, the temperature dropped and everything frosted up. It was very interesting to experience how harsh the New Zealand climate can be with huge swings in temperature in a period of just 24 hours.

Our winter climate in the U.K. does not seem to have these major swings in temperature in winter but stays more even, though lower down the temperature scale in daytime. Nevertheless, these Phoenix palms have no trouble tolerating these large changes in temperature in Temuka/Timaru. One mitigating factor, I suppose, is the relatively dry cold, though it is relentless in South Canterbury‘s winter with 40-50 frosts recorded each season. It is no wonder that the palms are somewhat jaundiced, but, thankfully, they turn fully green again in the summer sunshine.

I discovered, whilst there, that more exotic palms are now being sold to customers from New Zealand‘s South Island. In the past the only palms ever grown there were Trachycarpus fortunei, Phoenix canariensis and, rarely, Chamaerops humilis. Even the native Nikau palm was unavailable for purchase by the ordinary gardener. So I was very pleased to hear about a nursery near Christchurch specializing in all sorts of exotic plants. On the way to the airport on my last day, I made a detour to see this nursery -Texture Plants. I was very impressed and the selection was good, with Butia, Jubaea, Trachycarpus, Nikau, Chamaerops and Phoenix available. I decided to purchase a small Butia capitata to give to my brother to take back to plant in my dad‘s garden in memory of him and his seed collecting efforts. No doubt, it is the only Butia planted in Temuka but let‘s hope that it will not stay the only one for long.


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