THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE CHALLENGE OF PALM TREES
Idon’t remember exactly when the palm tree trend started, but certainly in the 1990s it was common to see massive palms on the back of equally large trucks being transported to new homes in trendy Auckland suburbs.
Frightening amounts of money changed hands for these giants of the tropics and I certainly never envisaged a time when I’d be able to buy one as tall as me for about $50.
We already have more than enough palms. But if you’re planning to plant one or more, these are your choices.
There are around 100 species of palms that’ll grow in Auckland’s north – Bangalow, Queen, Phoenix, Butia, Dypsis, Washingtonias and dozens more. And there are fewer, but still quite a number, that’ll grow in the south.
Why bother growing plants where they would not normally grow? Because it’s nice to have something tropical to look at through your frost-encrusted windows, and because there’s a challenge in seeing whether you can get a tropical plant to thrive in a cool location.
If you’re in the southern part of the country, give these a go. BUTIA CAPITATA
Coming from southern Brazil and Argentina, the Jelly Palm is used to weathering icy blasts from the Andes so it won’t be frightened of Dunedin. It likes to be well-watered and fed a couple of times a year. Given the right conditions, it can grow between three and five metres and pretty wide as well. It has very attractive blue/grey foliage and very unattractive spikes. CHAMAEDOREA RADICALIS This one is full of surprises. Some forms stay low and grow without trunks, while others turn into tall, solitary specimens. There’s research that says they’ll tolerate temperatures as low as -12oC. Hopefully we will never find out. PHOENIX DACTYLIFERA (DATE PALM)
The Date Palm can also tolerate sub-zero temperatures – down to about - 6oC – and adds an exotic touch to the garden. It likes sun and good drainage and can grow as tall as 12 metres, so give some thought as to whether it’s going to dwarf your house.
I love Kentias. We grew them as pot plants in Dunedin. They get very, very tall, but luckily they’re slow growers. I’m not going to say how tall in case
The Landscaper finds out I lied about it. They like rich soil, a bit of shade and plenty of water, and they’ll tolerate a frost or two.
This is another very slow grower so if you’re as old as I am you can plant one without worrying it’ll dwarf the house. It wants shade and water when it’s young and a moist, rich soil. QUEEN PALM
We recently took out two Queen palms because they grew speedily, side by side, to 15 metres tall and blocked our morning sun. They are spectacular in the right place, though, with their smooth, straight trunks and foliage in a topknot. Full sun and plenty of water are the go, and if you have space plant them in threes, not pairs. BANGALOW PALM
This is very popular in New Zealand with its banded trunk and bright green, spreading fronds. Plant a grove of these in part shade or full sun and protect from the wind to keep the leaves in good shape. It will tolerate light frosts and reasonably cool temperatures, but wants adequate moisture.
And here’s the bad news about palms.
They drop dead fronds everywhere, dump massive seed pods on your car and impede the path of the ride-on mower. Once they’ve been in the ground for a while the foliage will have grown well beyond your normal range of vision and all you’ll be looking at are the trunks. The worst crime is that they may block light and sun.
If that’s the case, it’s probably time to euthanise because palms don’t take kindly to pruning and topping. If you cut the tops off, they’ll probably die.
However, there is a school of thought that says if you cut them off in the green part of the trunk they may resprout. We’ve done this a few times and it’s worked. If the stumps regrow, the foliage will be much lower down and less likely to block the sun. However, I’m not sure how many times a palm will tolerate being beheaded.
Alternatively, good-looking trunks left about two to three metres tall, and surrounded by other garden plants, can look like elegant totem poles. Or not.
If possible, visit a palm nursery to view adult versions of the palmsyou want to grow. This chopped- off palm trunk has been cleverly incorporated into a landscaped garden.This grove of tall palms is balanced by a paved sitting areaunderneath. Right: Palms drop all manner of debris, includingthese seed pods, which make a mess ofpaths and terraces.
Kentia palms contribute greatly to the resort look.
If you want to risk topping your palms, cut them where the trunk is green and they may resprout.