Palms in Austria
No, not Australia! Not normally thought
of as the kind of place you might find palms, Robert describes the
joys and problems of 'sub-tropical' gardening in the skiing nation.
Robert Lackner, Feldgasse 48, Bad Deutsch, Altenburg, Austria
Chamaerops No. 19, published online 23-07-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Winter & Summer views in Austria
In the autumn issue '93 of Chamaerops our Editor
complained that he only received articles from U.K. members and
none from the rest of Europe. Well, I thought, let's do something
about it. In that issue you also asked a question that concerns
me - because I'm Austrian namely: 'Do you have to heat your glass-house
in Austria?' I'd say that depends on exactly where you're living
here. Most people regard Austria as a cold country and think of
the snowy mountains and ski-races. Admittedly the mountainous regions
are not the warmest, but the flatland east of Vienna, where I live,
is anything but cold. This part of Austria is the only one that
belongs to the pannonic climate (like most parts of Hungary), which
is a dry, continental climate with cold, dry winters, warm springs
and autumns, and usually hot, often dry summers. Some places quite
near to where I live, perhaps only 50 to 100 km away don't belong
to this climate type and it's much cooler there by comparison. For
example last February we had a period of quite severe frost, during
which the temperature dropped to -l0¾ to -13¾C. At the same time,
only 50 kms away, they had -23¾C for two nights. And this difference
makes it possible that some hardy palms thrive here, when they would
have almost no chance just 100 kms away. Although in some other
regions summers are also quite warm (especially in southern Austria),
their winter temperatures are mostly too cool to grow even hardy
palms. Another region, which is also quite mild during the winter,
is the extreme west of Austria, around the Bodensee. This area is
also quite suitable for some hardy palms. Though summer temperatures
are much lower there than here in the east, the winters are maybe
even milder there due to the greater impact of Atlantic air, which
doesn't influence the east so much.
I live in the east near Slovakia and Hungary and
we have snow only for a few days each winter, in severe winters
perhaps for several weeks but this is not very often. The temperatures
during the winter are usually around 0¾C, but sometimes reach the
extremes of +22¾C and -22¾ C. (the year when we reached -22¾C they
even had -21¾C in Florence, Italy), although both occur extremely
seldom. Once or twice each winter the temperature can drop to -l5"C
at night, but there are also winters (e.g. the last two) where the
temperature barely drops to -10¾C. In the three winters between
'88 and '90, temperatures around +20"C were more common than
heavy frost. This winter we had -7¾C only twice, which is very mild
and most of the winter was actually completely free of frost.
To many of the U.K. members these temperatures must
seem not much warmer than a freezer, because the winters in G.B.
are quite mild by comparison. And of course you might ask: is such
a climate suitable for palms? Believe me I couldn't have imagined
so either. But then, 7 years ago I purchased a Trachycarpus fortunei
and of course I wanted to know how to treat it and bought a palm
book. First I regarded it as incredible what the author wanted to
make me believe, namely that this palm withstands frost of -15¾C
without serious problems. But then I decided to give it a try and
planted a Trachy outside. I bought another small Trachy as a special
offer (£40). The first I kept in a tub and the other one I
planted in the ground. To my great surprise it worked. After the
first winter only a few fans were damaged but by and large the palm
was in good condition, and in the next couple of years I was able
to watch the difference in growth between the two. While the palm
in the tub grew only one inch a year, the one in the ground achieved
an unbelievable speed of growth. Every year its trunk increases
10 inches in height and it puts up 10 to 15 new leaves. In spring
94 it even flowered for the first time. Since then its trunk has
grown more than 3 feet.
Encouraged by these results I planted another two
Trachycarpus outside, but this time I chose larger plants. All three
of them grow very well and throughout the last 5 winters none of
them has shown any sign of damage due to freezing, neither brown
nor tattered fans. With light winter protection the palms survived
once even -17¾C without damage. A gardener told me that he grew
a Trachycarpus fortunei in one of the cooler regions of Austria
and it survived (with some protection, and damage of uncertain degree)
an incredible -25'C in the disaster winter of 1985! That gives me
the impression that even in extremely cold winters a Trachycarpus
can survive with some protection. Unfortunately I have no absolute
proof of that story, but what I can give proof of is that it survived
-17¾C here at my home without visible damage. Perhaps if you grow
Trachycarpus in areas with such cold winters it increases its resistance
to frost by an important few degrees after a number of years.
Certainly our winters are much colder than in the
U.K., but at least we don't suffer from wet cold. Our weather is
more influenced by continental air, and is therefore drier and more
stable, especially here in the east. The cold winter weather is
the reverse of the coin, but on the other hand we have very warm
springs (May here is as warm as July in London!) and autumns, and
the summers are usually quite hot and dry (the daytime temperatures
from April to September are the same as in Nice). And because the
average annual rainfall is only slightly above 20 inches, we can
enjoy plenty of sun and warmth from spring to autumn, while the
rest of the country further west can suffer from cold and wet weather.
The bathing season lasts from the end of April to the beginning
of October and during this time we enjoy the exotic plants very
much, because it gives a feeling of being far away from home.
I discovered that there are some Trachys with very
soft leaves, which have almost no resistance to wind, yet on the
other hand I have some specimens in the garden which are exposed
to very strong winds and which keep the fans in perfect shape even
after bad storms. So watch out if you buy a Trachy and check the
toughness of the leaves.
Perhaps a Trachycarpus is not of too much of interest
any more for the British members, because it's a hardy palm in all
parts of the U.K., but I hope this article will be useful for those
living in colder regions, as the information we receive here on
the continent about the hardiness of exotic plants is mostly from
Britain (thanks to their gardeners' unremitting research) and is
therefore unfortunately not always of much use, because completely
hardy-to-cold in Britain must not lead to the conclusion that a
plant is also hardy everywhere on the continent. Apart from that,
some plants requiring lots of heat and sunshine won't do very well
during British summers and are therefore too feeble to survive even
the mild winters of coastal regions, or just vegetate motionless.
On the other hand those plants could thrive in continental climates,
despite the colder winters here, because of the summer heat.
What might be of more interest than a Trachycarpus
are the other palms I'm growing in the garden. Last year I took
the risk of planting a Butia capitata outside, which is certainly
not as hardy as a Trachy (not even close), but obviously the risk
paid off, because the palm looks fine in spite of more than a week
of permanent - but not too severe - frost last December. If I have
more information about what happens with the Butia in colder winters
I'll let you know. Additionally I managed to get hold of some new
palms last winter, which were very difficult to locate, namely:
Nannorrhops ritchiana (2 green and 2 silver/blue, which were just
beginning to form their first fan-shaped leaves, 2 Jubaea chilensis
(about I foot (30 cm) high), 2 Sabal minor (5-6 feet high), 1 Serenoa
repens with lots of little fans, 1 Rhapidophyllum hystrix (30 cm
high, divided fans), 1 Trachycarpus martianus (30 cm high, already
divided fans), I Trachycarpus wagnerianus (about 40 cm (16 inches)
high, with lovely little fans) and 6 Trachycarpus takil (seedlings).
I know that Nannorrhops ritchiana doesn't grow very
well (or even at all) in Britain, but hopefully it will thrive in
our hot, dry summers here. If it does it could be an ideal palm
for climates similar to ours, due to its ability to tolerate severe
(but dry) frosts. As far as I know it should tolerate temperatures
between -20¾ and -22¾C without damage if it's kept dry during the
winter. I planted one silver/blue and one green Nannorrhops in the
open ground at the beginning of March and I'm watching the difference
between them and the 2 specimens I kept in the tub. The blue form
should be relatively fast growing, at least compared to the green
form. Though its frost-tolerance, especially of the blue form, is
not 100% certain, it could be almost a match for Rhapidophyllum.
Furthermore I've no clue how fast it grows in the open ground here,
I only know that attempts to grow Nannorrhops in Britain in the
open ground were fruitless.
I also decided to give Jubaea chilensis a try. Unfortunately
I couldn't afford to purchase a larger one and so I had to take
rather small plants, which means it'll take quite a long time to
get some results as far as growth in the open ground is concerned.
I think the two Sabal minor should also thrive very well in our
hot summer climate and apart from that I heard they can take quite
heavy frosts, down to -20¾C. Rhapidophyllum hystrix is certainly
not a suitable palm for Great Britain, but in my garden it threw
up its first new fan in April and is still growing well, though
it's still a quite small plant. Though it's a slow grower in Great
Britain, I think it will grow quite well, and much faster here.
Its enormous tolerance of frost (down to -23¾C or
maybe even -25¾) should encourage everyone living in the more continental
climates of Europe with cold winters and hot summers to give this
plant a try. When I have more detailed information about the speed
of growth in our climate I'll let you all know. The Serenoa repens
I think should also be quite hardy in our climate and will certainly
do well in the sunny position where I planted it. I heard -13¾C
shouldn't be too much of a problem for this palm, but I guess I'll
find that out sooner or later for myself.
The Trachycarpus wagnerianus - though only a rather
small plant right now - is really extremely beautiful with its small
fans and has, as far as I know, approximately the same frost tolerance
as T. fortunei.
Perhaps the ideal palm for winter cold climates
will he Trachycarpus takil in the future, because this palm is even
hardier than its relative T. fortunei. I've heard it will tolerate
-18¾C without damage and could survive temperatures below -20¾C.
Unfortunately only seedlings are available at this time, but hopefully
in the future some larger specimens will he obtainable. I'll try
to raise my T. takil seedlings to a reasonable size and then I'll
plant them in the open ground to speed up growth.
I think T. takil will become very popular in 10
or 20 years due to its high tolerance of frost and its ability to
grow in cooler summers (unlike the ultra-hardies Nannorrhops and
Rhapidophyllum) quite well. Apart from that it has almost the same
appearance as T. fortunei (maybe a little larger) and therefore
it might better meet the common expectation of what a palm is than,
say, Rhapidophyllum hystrix. Perhaps it'll some time be a widespread
palm tree in areas where even T. fortunei is not 100% certain to
survive the coldest winters. Hopefully I can tell you in a couple
of years how the T. takils do in my garden.
I'll try to grow the Nannorrhops, Rhapidophyllum,
Serenoa and Sabal minor without winter protection (maybe not for
the first years, but later) and hope it will work out well. Perhaps
also the Trachycarpus takil could grow here without any shelter
at all. Every winter I give the T. fortunei protection to the roots
by means of straw, and wrap a blanket around the leaves, but even
this shelter is not necessary every winter. I try to keep the palms
completely dry during the winter, unless periods of warm weather
But we don't only have palms in our garden, we also
have some other rather exotic plants, which grow without any winter
protection around here. These are: several Yucca gloriosa (with
trunks up to 4 feet), a Yucca aloifolia 'Variegata', a couple of
Aucuba japonica and Fatsia japonica, 2 Cupressus sempervirens, (Italian
Cypress), a Magnolia grandiflora, a sweet chestnut-tree and 4 fig-frees
(Ficus carica) with sometimes quite a lot of edible figs, twice
Furthermore I have recently planted a hardy banana,
Musa basjoo, in the ground, which will he protected during the winter
with a bale of straw. Thus I have no idea how it'll grow here, although
I know from hearsay it shouldn't be too difficult, as it grows quite
fast in warm weather (given appropriate irrigation).
Many people seeing our garden can hardly believe
their eyes. To begin with, some of them were smiling at me, because
knowledge of palms is not very high in Austria (and indeed in most
areas you'll not be successful with growing palms outside, even
with a Trachy). But step by step more and more people are becoming
interested in these exotic plants and today in my home village there
are at least five gardens with Trachycarpus fortunei in the ground,
and I'm sure this number will increase in the years to come.
Additionally next week I'm going to plant some larger
Trachycarpus in the front garden, so that more people can see the
palms, which will hopefully encourage some of them to try this also
in their own gardens. On the contrary Yucca gloriosa, edible chestnut
and fig trees are quite often seen around here, but perhaps in a
few years we'll find some palms in more front gardens. To my astonishment
I recently saw two Araucaria araucana (the monkey puzzle tree) in
a garden, which have been grown in that place for a couple of years
with no protection, an indication that they are a lot hardier than
many people might believe.
I hope I will be able to give you an update about
the new palms I've planted and I'd also be glad to receive additional
information about these species. So if anyone has more detailed
knowledge please let me know or write an article for Chamaerops.
I think the information will be useful for those living in colder
winter climates than Britain's and it would be a further contribution
to spreading the word about palms in Europe.
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