Palms have a fairly exotic reputation, linked vaguely with jungles/rainforests, deserts and Mediterranean promenades. They are a big family with around 2,600 species, including all the various rattans which are climbing palms. Is it possible to grow palms in this country? Today we’ll turn our mind to this as it is, after all, Palm Sunday.
A little taste of the exotic – or even a big helping - is what we’d like to have when we grow palms in the house, on the patio or in the garden. Yes, it is possible to grow palms in this country, given the right conditions. Tender palms can be grown inside, some palms can be grown in pots outside and moved into a frost-free place in the winter and others can grow outside as long as the climate is right.
Two easy tender palms to grow inside
Tender palms can be very elegant plants and in the right conditions they do very well as houseplants. Their leaves will be scorched by direct bright sunlight through glass so find somewhere with bright, filtered light. They need humid air so damp them down or spray them. In summer, don’t let the compost dry out but don’t let the plant stand in excess water. In winter, let the surface of the compost dry out slightly before watering. Dry air causes dry tips to their leaves so they don’t like radiators and they don’t like draughts.
If their leaves get dusty you can always give them a gentle shower with lukewarm water.
The slow-growing parlour palm (Chamaedorea elegans) may reach 90cm – 1.2m. It is native to the high rain forest in Central America where it grows on the forest floor in the shade. It needs only low to moderately bright light and if the leaves turn yellowish-green it may be getting too much sun. The other reason for greeny-yellowy leaves is not enough feeding. It needs to be fed more than most palms: monthly in spring and summer with slow-release feed. It needs normal to warm room temperatures (18-27C) with a winter minimum temperature of 16C. Humid conditions are necessary so keep the soil lightly moist with good drainage and mist the foliage regularly.
The Kentia palm or Forster sentry palm (Howea forsteriana) also tolerates fairly low light levels. The RHS recommends that it is kept under glass all year round. It is native to Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific and has a beautiful arching habit with drooping leaf segments.
Palms to grow outside – in the right climate
Palms do grow outside in mild and in coastal areas of Britain, from the Scilly Isles to Argyll. Some people say they can also be OK in the middle of big cities. If you don’t live in a frost-free area, though, palms have to be protected in winter or moved somewhere warm (apart, that is, from the Chusan palm which is generally hardy).
The Belmore sentry palm (Howea belmoreana) also comes from Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific. It arches more than its relative, the Kentia palm, and its leaf segments arch upwards. It enjoys spending the summer outside if its pot is plunged into the soil. It grows slowly and in 20 to 50 years it may reach 4-8m in height and 2.5-4m in width.
The dwarf fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) is native to north-west Africa, south-western Europe, Sicily and Malta. It’s a good plant for creating a lush and tropical feeling in the garden, growing to 2m in height and 1m in width. It is quite hardy, especially in mild locations in the south and near the sea. It likes well drained soil in a sunny, sheltered spot away from harsh winds. It can also can be grown in a container located in a bright, frost-free spot for the winter.
Left to itself, it grows quite slowly and eventually forms a well defined trunk but Architectural Plants says the key is to grow it quickly.
Grown well, these exhibit a rare verdancy, luxuriance and exoticness. The key is to feed and water enough to get them to grow reasonably fast … and, more importantly, remove all leaves that are less than perfect.
The Chusan or windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is hardy in Britain. With its large fan-shaped leaves and branched heads of flowers in summer at the top of a thick trunk, it can make a good looking specimen tree. One of the keys to success is to plant it out of the wind so the leaves aren't torn. The Chusan palm can reach 7-8m, growing 30cm a year if it's happy in its location. Its spread is 2-3m.
A 'fake palm'
The cabbage palm, sometimes known as the Torbay palm, is an imposter. It isn’t really a palm and nor does it come from Torbay, although many can be found there. Its botanical name is Cordyline australis and it comes from New Zealand.
It can be found in many locations, especially along the south and west coast and is reasonably hardy. Those outside my office window were badly affected in very cold temperatures a few years ago but they have now all made a recovery by resprouting from the base.
You can grow a cabbage palm in a tub but it looks at its best if it has light and space. It can reach 7m with a spread of 2m. Spikes of scented flowers produce trusses of seeds which birds like in the winter.
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