Palms have been much valued by man for thousands of years and remain just as important today. For centuries these wonderful trees have supplied us with building material as well as edible fruits such as dates, coconuts and betel nuts while fibre and cane from the trees has been used to manufacture mats, baskets and furniture.
There are some 3000 species of palms world wide, varying in size from the diminutive little love palms to the giant Ceroxylon or Andean wax palm which grows to a towering 65m in height.
In terms of climate, palms can be roughly divided into two groups namely the hardy palms, such as Phoenix canariensis (Canary island date palm), which can withstand cold weather and frost, and the tropical palms such as Caryota mitis (Fish tail palm) which thrive in warm, humid, frost free conditions.
Many palms, however, are very adaptable and suitable for varied landscaping requirements so in colder regions of South Africa it is possible to grow varieties that are a little less hardy if some care is taken when choosing them and they are planted in warmer parts of the garden that offer adequate protection from extreme cold as well as being given sufficient water, .
Palms have a fibrous, compact root system which is why they can be grown very successfully and to great effect in areas where the roots are restricted such as a designated island within a swimming pool or in large containers and pots.
Once you have selected the area where your palm is to be planted, dig a hole at least 1m square and 1m deep. Prepare a rich, porous planting medium comprising equal quantities of garden soil and peat compost to which about 60 grams of bone meal has been added. Place the palm in the hole and return the soil to the hole to a level slightly lower than the surface of the rest of the ground. Firm the soil down well and water generously. Add a thick mulch of compost around the palm to nourish the plant and keep the roots cool and moist. Feed with liquid fertilizer at six weekly intervals during the growth period and do not allow the plant to dry out.
Popular Palm varieties
- Seaforthia elegans (Seaforthia): is a semi hardy palm that grows to a height of 15m with fronds up to 2m in length. Although this lovely variety will tolerate light frost it prefers a frost free environment. Young plants do best in a semi shaded position.
- Cocos plumosa (Queen palm): popular throughout South Africa this handsome, hardy palm is a fast grower. Reaching a mature height of 12m with fronds up to 5m long, the Queen palm will do well in full sun or semi shade.
- Butia capitata (Jelly palm): has distinctive, blue green, beautifully arched fronds of up to 2,5m. Growing to a height of about 6m with a robust, 1m wide trunk, this is an excellent specimen palm on a large lawn.
- Caryota mitis (Fish tail palm): is a frost tender, cluster palm that does best in semi shaded, humid conditions. The pale green, triangular leaflets on the fronds resemble fish tails hence the common name. The cluster grows to a height of about 7m and a width of about 1m.
- Chrysalidocarpus lutescens (Golden bamboo palm): the pale green, arched fronds of this very decorative palm have yellow mid-ribs and yellow veined leaflets. The ringed trunks are greenish yellow and resemble bamboo. This tropical palm grows in ornamental clumps to a height of 6m. The fronds are about 1m long.
- Phoenix canariensis (Canary island palm): this well known, very hardy palm is grown successfully throughout the country. Reaching a height of 20m with a 7m spread and a robust 70cm trunk which is covered in prominent leaf bases. This very handsome palm should be given plenty of space.
- Washingtonia filifera (Petticoat palm): hardy, frost and drought resistant, the stately petticoat palm can reach a height of 15m. The grey green, deeply divided costalpalmate leaves reach a length of 2m. The common name refers to the 'petticoat' of dead leaves that cover the trunk.