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A little about the origin of Palms.
Palms are a relatively recent addition to the evolution of plant life on Earth. Fossil records suggest that Sabal palms are the earliest, dating back approximately 85 million years. Sabals can still be found growing in hot and seemingly inhospitable environments.
85 million years has seen many species of palm evolve. As environmental changes happened, so many different species of palms evolved in different ways. From turbulent, volcanic landscapes to humid, tropical jungles and even in the cooler regions and at altitude with seasonal snow fall. With over 2800 known species, and more being discovered from time to time, palms have adapted and established well on this earth.
The method of distribution of palms across the planet is varied. Some palm seeds travel in the stomachs of birds and other animals in order to begin life further afield from their parent, in fact many rely on this particularly acidic method of accommodation in order to break down the seed wall for germination. Some palms establish themselves due to the export of fruit, for example dates, when the discarded seeds germinate and grow. The coconut has perfected a particularly effective method by means of falling into the sea and being taken by the ocean currents to distant shores, moving further afield with each generation, until now being established on every tropical coastline in the world. Another more recent method is the international trade of plants and seeds by collectors and commercial growers for prized garden and house plants.
Cultivating Palms in Britain.
A few words about cold hardiness:
There are many factors that you should take into consideration when deciding that you want to cultivate a palm in your garden, or indeed several palms if you have the space. The most important thing to consider is how well will the plant cope in the winter months. This is probably the very thing that stops most people from even considering planting anything as exotic as a palm tree. However, there are many varieties of palm that are said to be tolerant of cold temperatures - but it is not as simple as that.
Cold hardiness is a multi-faceted attribute and there are many factors involved. Cold and dry is better than cold and wet, especially where night time temperatures drop and the ground then starts to freeze. A gradual lowering of temperatures is more favourable than sudden drops. Short cold spells are better than long ones and, in addition to all of this, the wind will have an adverse effect as well! Think of how you would cope, you would prefer to gradually acclimatise to winter temperatures and then, being cold, you would not want to get caught in the rain especially if it was windy as well!
So, you can't do anything about the weather, and there are a great many numerous palms that would never survive planted outside anywhere in Britain. But there are some species that do very well and, according to the climate conditions where you live, you can make an informed decision as to which palm to plant, based on that particular species original natural habitat and also any other areas with differing climatic conditions where that plant has been tried with success.
Choosing the right palm:
Probably the safest choice to make when choosing a palm to grow in this country is Trachycarpus. There are several species of which T.fortunei seems to be the most popular and the most readily available in different sizes. If you look at the natural habitat of trachycarpus you will understand why it is so successful when grown in Britain. It occurs naturally in the Himalayas of northern India to northern Thailand and China, in subtropical to temperate regions, and can be found growing happily at 7500 ft above sea level with snow from November to March. Here is an article about trachycarpus by Martin Gibbons and Tobias W. Spanner.
Another reasonably safe choice is Chamaerops. Although it is a native of the Mediterranean, around southern Europe and north Africa, it occurs occasionally at altitudes of 3000 ft and tolerates moderate snowfall. It is widely grown all around the world and has adapted well to most climates.
Other good choices, depending on your location, might include Jubaea, Phoenix, Butia, Washingtonia, and Brahea, and, if you're feeling adventurous, how about trying a Rhopalostylis. Admittedly, if you are going to try this beautiful palm in our cool Isles, Rhopalostylis would be happier growing in the more mild parts of Britain, Cornwall for example, and in a sheltered location. Rhopalostylis is a native of New Zealand and is the most southern growing palm in the world. They are reasonably hardy in all but extreme climates and will tolerate some frost in the cool temperate zone. Occurring naturally in dense forest areas not far from the sea with good rain fall, they would prefer not to be in full sun with a stiff drying wind and little water.
Planting your palm:
The best time for planting is late Spring ⁄ early Summer. This is when new growth starts and the plant is no longer dormant, and, if healthy, the newly planted palm will have the rest of the year to establish fresh roots before returning to Winter dormancy. Plant it in the Winter and you stand a very good chance of killing it.
The preferred size of palm that can be considered suitable for planting is one where the roots completely fill a five gallon pot, anything smaller than this should really continue its life in a pot until ready for planting - many specimens bought from specialist nurseries will, of course, be larger than this.
Now you need to decide where your palm is to be planted. Consider how big it is going to get as it matures, and also, just as importantly, to ensure early survival, the position you choose should be favourable in respect of the young plants requirements - some young palms suffer from too much direct sun and all would benefit from a sheltered position. In fact all palms can suffer from 'sun burn' if not properly acclimatised to the sun, and if your newly acquired palm is fresh out of the nursery greenhouse it will require gradual acclimatisation before being subjected to the sun. Here is an interesting article on this subject by Don Tollefson, entitled 'sunsitizing'.
Something else that needs to be taken into account is what kind of soil do you have and how free draining is it. If the soil is very sandy, the drainage will be good but you will need to add some organic matter. If you are fortunate enough to have good soil with perfect drainage, the planting hole needs to be approximately twice the size of the root ball. When you backfill, use a fifty-fifty mixture of good potting compost and the soil that was excavated and ensure that the same planting level, when the plant was potted, is maintained in the ground, or higher. As you backfill use a hose to force the soil into all areas of the root to ensure there are no air pockets. If when digging out the planting hole you find that you only have a few inches of top soil, and below this is heavy clay, do not dig any deeper. Digging a hole into clay will create a sump that fills with water and if planted in this kind of environment will only cause problems for the palm and, more than likely, lead to its death. Simply use the top level of the clay as the bottom of the planting hole, when the root ball is placed upon this, heap the soil ⁄ compost backfill around it to create, in effect, a raised planting area. This will need to be of a reasonable width and you will probably have to obtain more top soil for the job.
Your new palm will need plenty of water in its first year and shouldn't be fertilised until the following year when new growth is observed. It is a good idea to protect the palm during the winter for the first few years until larger and more established, and watering should still continue, especially during dry hot spells.
More, to come soon, on other exotics such as tree ferns, yuccas, phormiums and bamboo...and a little advise about Acer cultivation in an article by John Gilbert...
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