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Potted Palms in the Peak District

By Paula Salt, Leek, Staffordshire.
Chamaerops No. 52 - published online 12-03-2006

First: The Salt Garden with a light dusting of snow.
Others: Inflorescences developing on Trachycarpus fortunei.
Photos by Keith Salt.

The market town of Leek is in North Staffordshire on the edge of the Peak District. It stands around 200 metres above sea level and is approximately 35 miles from the coast. My garden is small and has a northerly aspect, but fortunately the bungalow does not cast too much shade. I have liked unusual plants since childhood, especially those with big tropical- looking foliage and also bamboo. Buying the bungalow in 1991 and having a garden to myself was an opportunity to experiment and grow anything that my heart desired!

In 1995, my interest in bamboo was fading and I was exhausted by their take-over bid for our garden and that belonging to next-door. At that point I noticed a small Trachycarpus fortunei that I must have bought with my first plants four years before. It was growing in almost pure clay and partial shade, but it was thriving and looked beautiful. This gave me inspiration. The Trachycarpus fit in well with the figs, Fatsia japonica and vines that I had recently started to grow, but it was far more tropical and endearing.

Finding a supply of palms was difficult, so initially I had only Trachycarpus fortunei and Chamaerops humilis, although this did give me time to read about their needs and prepare the garden. A small local nursery had some fine Trachycarpus and one in particular stood alone: its large leathery leaves hung in a haphazard fashion and it had a strong, fuzzy, matted trunk. I was in love! My enquiries found that it was not for sale. Several months later we visited again, and although the large Trachycarpus was still there, its health appeared to be failing, and it was still not for sale. Again we visited and this time discovered that the nursery was closing down; therefore, I was able to purchase a good-sized Trachycarpus for £35 [incredible!]. Better still, the big Trachycarpus was still there, now in a poly-tunnel looking sick with its leaves at an even more haphazard angle. I made an offer, it was accepted and I rushed home for the money. A few days later the Trachycarpus arrived in an old truck. I tried for over twelve months to restore the poor tree back to health, but unfortunately he faded away. I was so upset that no other tree can replace my first ever, big Trachycarpus [Boris]; he was responsible for my love of palms.

I try to think before purchasing a palm for on several occasions I have said ‚I must have that!‘ only to discover that it will not fit in our Peugeot 106. Another problem is finding pots large enough to house the palms, then their transportation and potting up. One sunny April day we decided it was time to re-pot our largest Trachycarus fortunei, named ‚Bo.‘ I believed that I had planned this with military precision:

1. I had found a suitable 42-inch terracotta pot, paid for it and arranged delivery plus the use of two men to lift the tree in. The pot arrived a day early whilst there was no one at home and it was left on the drive.

2. I had measured the pot and the gate and I was sure it would fit through, but I was wrong. So, after taking off the gate and removing the gatepost, we gently rolled the pot through and into position.

3. The broken crocks were put in for drainage and five bags of compost were added.

4. Now how to get the Trachycarpus out of the old pot and into the new without our helpers? Fortunately one of the local nurseries was picking up the remaining bamboo that I had taken out of the garden and, just as despair was setting in, a truck pulled up containing a vast gentleman standing at least six feet five inches tall; he looked tough and had a long, slicked back pony-tail to prove it! ‚Dare we ask this gentleman for help,‘ we wondered? Kevin turned out to be a huge help.

5. I smashed off the old pot and when doing so a bit flew and chipped the new pot. It was fortunate that we had company at that point so tears and shouting were avoided!

6. Using a blanket and rope and Kevin‘s kindness and immense strength we managed to move the palm into position. It looked magnificent! But when I suggested a slight adjustment in position Kevin declined and made a hasty getaway clutching the £20 my husband had given him.

7. Before the last bamboo left the garden, a golden cane, its stripes glinting in the sunlight, smashed one of the security lights.

8. Time for a stiff drink, I think!

Since finding The Palm Centre in 2001, my palm collection has grown to include:

Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chusan Palm, which is always reliable.

Trachycarpus takil, the Kumaon Palm, from the Himalayas.

Jubaea chilensis, the Chilean Wine Palm, has grown well this year. Then we tried to move the pot to put it inside for the winter and we discovered that it had anchored itself into the ground with a very large root.

Butia Capitata, the Jelly Palm, has grown well, though perhaps too well: when putting it away for the winter, a wheel on my trolley buckled under the weight.

Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera is very disappointing and has put on little growth.

Chamaerops humilis ‚Vulcano‘ has grown well, even a very squashed poorly specimen that we rescued from a garden centre. I love the lush green leaf and close growth habit of the ‚Vulcano‘.

Brahea armata is particularly slow growing, only producing three leaves this year, but then the weather was not good; it seems to have never stopped raining. The Brahea were bought locally and have smaller and very pale silver leaves whereas its partner has larger and darker silver leaves.

Rhapidophyllum hystrix, the Needle Palm, is growing well.

Trachycarpus latisectus, the Windamere Palm. My husband purchased this as a Christmas present for me in 2004. It is only 65cm high but I hope that it will survive in its new and more hostile environment.

Trithrinax campestris is one of my favourites, but it is armed and spikes both the dogs and me when we walk past. Many of my palms are small mainly because my salary as a nurse does not cover the cost of the larger palms that I crave and also because I want to support my other love, handbags, although these are easier to buy and sneak into the house without my husband knowing.

Winter Care and Protection

The wind, exposure and the cold are problems here, but as shelter from the hedge and other planting has increased, a good microclimate has developed. The Beech and Holly hedge slow the wind and a clump of Phyllostachys nigra further minimise its effect. A large Magnolia grandiflora ‚Gallissonniere‘ protects the palms from the east wind that had been a problem at the bottom of the garden. The Trachycarpus fortunei stay out all winter without protection, but the Trachycarpus takil gets a horticultural fleece cover as it is still young. In December the Jubaea chilensis along with the Butia capitata, Trithrinax campestris and the smallest Chamaerops humilis ‚Vulcano‘ move into the garage to share it with our two guinea pigs, Commander Tomalok and Ambassador Sarek (a.k.a. Colin and Lucky) who then enjoy the tropical outlook. The car lives on the drive.

The palms that stay out that are not so hardy as the Trachycarpus have protective tents made from canes and horticultural fleece. The air seems to circulate in these and provides some protection from the wet and cold. For further protection I spray the crowns with a fungicide. In August/September the palms are treated to a high-potash feed with the hope that this will make them more resilient to fight the winter cold and wet. On warm days the palms are released from their tents and the fleece is taken into the bungalow to be aired. The two beautiful Brahea armata stay out in the garden all winter happily enveloped in their tents.

The local bird population appear to appreciate the palms and can often be seen sheltering under the palmate leaves, or in the case of the Coal Tits, planting seeds in the fibre of the Trachycarpus so that in the spring a bizarre variety of seedlings sprout from the trunks. During nesting time someone should tell these birds that the fibre is firmly attached to the trunks and no amount of tugging will release it to provide nest linings, although it appears there is no harm in trying; even the local crows have had a go. I have just telephoned The Palm Centre to order two palms for the new year and to take advantage of their winter sale! As snow lies on the ground I can only dream of summer days when to sit at the table beneath a palm tree with a good book is a pleasure indeed.


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