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Palms in the Balearics

By Howard Janes

There are nearly 2,400 recorded species of palms in 191 genera; which do not include cycads, yuccas, agaves, cordylines, or tree ferns! There is only one genus/species indiginous to Europe: Chamaerops humilis. While a few others come from regions where the climate makes them suitable for growing in Europe, some as far north as the west coast of Scotland, the majority of species are sub-tropical or tropical. Most of these require constant heat or special conditions that are difficult and expensive to replicate but some, subject to care and consideration, are adaptable to the warm-temperate climate.

The species suitable for the Balearic Islands, especially frost-free areas, include the following:

Palms commonly available.

Common name
Chamaerops humilis v humilis ° Mediterranean Fan Palm Western Mediterranean
Butia capitata Wine or Jelly Palm South Brazil
Phoenix canariensis
Canary Island Date Palm Canary Islands
  roebelenii Pigmy or Dwarf Date Palm Laos & Vietnam
Syagras romanzoffiana ¹ Queen or Giriba Palm S.E.Brazil & adj. countries
Trachycarpus fortunei ² Chusan or Chinese Windmill Palm China
Washingtonia ³ filifera Californian Cotton Palm S.E. California & W. Arizona
  robusta Mexican Fan or Skyduster Palm N.W. Mexico / S.W. California

1. often sold as Palmito.
2. often sold as Cocotero, Coco plumosa or Arecastrum romanzoffiana.
3. often sold as Chamaerops excelsa or Palmito excelsa/alta.
4. tall (older) specimens of both species are common throughout the Island, but most Washingtonias available today may well be crosses (hybrids) rather than true specimens; only time will tell!

Palms often available.

Common name
Archontophoenix cunninghamiana Bangalow or Piccabeen Palm New South Wales
Bismarckia nobilis Bismarck Palm Madagascar
Brahea ¹ armata Blue Hesper Palm Mexico
Chamaerops humilis v argentea ² Silver or Blue Fan Palm Moroccan Atlas
Livistona australis Australian Cabbage Palm Australia
  chinensis Chinese Fan or Fountain Palm China
  decipiens Weeping Cabbage Palm Australia
  mariae Cabbage Palm Central & N. Australia
Phoenix dactylifera ³ Date Palm Unknown
  reclinata Senegal Date Palm Senegal
Sabal mexicana Rio Grande or Texas Palm Southern Mexico
  palmetto Palmetto Palm Florida

1. often sold as Erythea.
2. usually sold as Chamaerops cerifera.
3. the only species of genus Phoenix (i.e. date palm) to give true, edible dates.

Palms for a sheltered, shaded area.

Common name
Chamaedorea elegans Parlour Palm Mexico
  metallica Metallic Palm Southern Mexico
Dypsis lutescens ¹ Golden Cane or Areca Palm Madagascar
Howea forsteriana ² Kentia, Sentry or Thatch Palm Lord Howe Island
Rhapis excelsa Lady or Bamboo Palm China & S.E. Asia

1. often sold as Areca Palm.
2. often sold as Kentia Palm.

Please note, whereas most trees are dicots, palms are monocots and all except Chamaerops humilis are foreign to Europe. Hence they have significantly different requirements, the more general of which are briefly covered in the tips below.

  1. Check before buying! Some palms stocked by local garden centres, even some of the above if you have frosts (e.g. Phoenix robelenii?), are too sensitive to survive Balearic winters except in warm, well lit, conservatories (e.g. Livistona rotundifolia), or even at all (e.g. coconut palm - Cocos nucifera). These will not, therefore, be suitable for planting out, and will have to be kept in containers.
  2. Plant in early summer! Buy container grown palms at any time of year but, to minimize setback that can lead to death, resist re-potting or planting before night temperatures rise and growth re-starts in mid-May/June ~ even if the plants seem to be pot bound. Even in good circumstances, it may take a couple of years for new growth to become evident.
  3. Use Good soil! If kept fed and watered, most palms should survive well for many years in containers or well-drained pockets in bedrock (albeit with much slower growth), but require a good mass of rich, well-drained soil if they are to thrive.
  4. Buy transplants in June! To provide protection in transit and reduce transpiration, the root balls of lifted palms should be as large as possible, well wrapped and kept moist. Their leaves should be reduced by half in number and be bundled, wrapped and bound with splints to protect the bud*. They should be planted promptly in large, well-prepared, wet holes with good drainage, and the ground soaked weekly thereafter. Tall trunks should be propped for a year and the leaves kept bound for at least two months while the roots recover in warm soil.
  5. Water well! It is a fallacy that palms like dry conditions; while some may be called ‘drought tolerant’, none should ever dry out and all benefit from watering in dry periods ~ a few even like their toes in permanent water (e.g. Ravenea rivularis).
  6. Feed well! Even if you cannot mulch often, palms, both planted and in containers, like to be fed well at least twice annually ~ say late March and late August - preferably with organic (e.g. animal manure or bone meal), inorganic (N-P-K & Mg + trace elements of B, Fe, Mn & Zn, but preferably with high N & Mg, and low P ratios), and nitrogenous (e.g. urea) fertilizers, singly or mixed.

* The central bud is everything, you can cut off all of the leaves, but if the bud breaks or dies, the tree dies.

Further information

The best all-round reference book, but a little outdated with respect to recent nomenclature is Palms Throughout the World by David L. Jones - Reed Books, 1995, ISBN 0 7301 0420 6; the best for recognition, descriptions and conditions is An Encyclopedia (sic) of Cultivated Palms by Robert Lee Riffle & Paul Craft - Timber Press, 1993, ISBN 0-88192-558-6; and the best general cultural information is in the International Palm Society journal PALMS, April 1999, Vol. 43, No. 2 (see below).

Useful addresses

European Palm Society
Palm Centre - Specialist palm nursery near London  
Rare palm seeds - Specialist seed supplier in Germany
International Palm Society (U.S.A.)

Feel free to email any contributions, comments and queries about this article; however, please note that I am not an expert, just an amateur who has begun to take an interest in the potential of palms in the Mediterranean garden.

Palm culture is not an exact science. If you venture from the safe it may be a little costly but, with care, your successes should reward you by outnumbering your failures. Good luck!
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