When you mention palm trees, you might think of the Caribbean and other tropical vacation hotspots—but you can grow your own palm tree at home if you choose the right species.
So says palm expert Chris Kidd, curator of the Ventnor Botanic Garden (botanic.co.uk) on the Isle of Wight. Ventor’s Arecaceae (palm) collection was awarded National Plant Collection status by Plant Heritage (plantheritage.org.uk) last year.
“People have preconceived notions of what palm trees are and what conditions they will like, but in the UK, at least climatically if you can put a palm tree in a spot where it won’t be waterlogged or constantly battling salty winds hat, they’ll grow just about anywhere if you pick the right species,” he says.
The first palm trees, introduced to this country in the 1870s, came from China and Japan, and when they came here it was expected that they would need hot, sunny places to thrive. But trachycarpus are native to the Himalayas and can cope with cold, frost, snow and darkness, Kidd explains.
“If you live in a frost pocket, Trachycarpus is the palm to go for. It can withstand really cold temperatures and grows much faster in the dappled shade where it gets more leaves.”
The second hardiest palm is Chamaerops, which is native to the Mediterranean and sunny parts of Europe. It can be grown from southern England to the Midlands and needs a sunny spot, he says. “It will take a light frost, but not as much as the Trachycarpus. And it will take sub-zero temperatures, but it doesn’t want to sit in the frozen ground for days.”
Palm trees more suitable for containers
“Some palms grow better in a container and then you can bring them indoors for the winter or let them sit on a sheltered southwest-facing wall with plenty of sunshine. They must remain frost-free.
“The jelly palm (Butia capitata) and the Canary Islands date palm (Phoenix canariensis) are two good examples. After that, you start moving into the exotic realm, where the rewards are good but the risks are high,” he says.
“Another misconception about palm trees is that they grow very slowly. To be honest, they are not. The more moisture you give them — without getting them soaked — the better they respond,” he says.
“They can actually grow very quickly if you put them where they get as much moisture as a regular garden plant and don’t treat them like they’re something that needs to be kept dry.”
What should you pay attention to when buying?
Look for one that doesn’t look like it’s been hanging around the kid’s room for a while, Kidd suggests. “It should be in a nice big pot (where the palm leaves don’t touch the side of the pot) with no brambles and mare’s tails growing at the bottom so it looks like it’s been in there a long time.
“The sooner they got into the country, the better they are. A lot of nursery stock in the UK is grown in Italy and Spain where there is plenty of sun and water and things grow fast. If they come into the nursery and don’t stay there long, they’re still on the fast growth track.”
“If a plant sits there for two or three years and isn’t getting enough water, then buy something that’s already started to really slow down.”
You are looking for really fresh palm trees, whose trunks are light brown and whose old leaves have not been freshly cut off. Look for nice fresh white roots at the bottom of the pot, especially early in the season.
how do you take care of them
“If the air isn’t salty and the soil isn’t soaked with water, you should be able to grow Trachycarpus. The little ones take a few years to develop a trunk and actually look like a palm tree. With plenty of food and plenty of fertilizer, you’ll be surprised at how quickly they grow. You could achieve 15-20 cm of growth per year,” says Kidd.
The biggest mistake is when people get overzealous and cut off the old leaves, he says. The leaves on palm trees are long lasting and while they are green they are photosynthetic, adding nourishment to the plant.
“Many gardeners have the urge to reach out for secateurs and saw and clip and prune and can turn palm trees into bizarre looking things. Any leaves that helped it grow have been taken away, and as a result it can take on an awkward horticultural shape, with four or five leaves left at the top.
“Feed and water palm trees regularly. If you grow a palm tree in a pot, all the nutrients in the compost will be gone in 12 months and will need to be replaced. You need a good spread fertilizer that is applied little and often with each watering. In the summer you don’t have to water every day, but you have to water regularly.”
It’s a good idea to change the compost every year, he suggests, at a time of year when the plant is dormant, preferably in January or February.
You don’t need to protect Trachycarpus or Chamaerops with fleece, but less hardy palms may need to be brought indoors for the winter, so think about the hassle of moving large cultivars covertly, he adds.
Which plants are good palm partners?
“Palms are statement plants that are very architectural and will remain so. It can lend itself to a formal situation in even-numbered groups,” says Kidd. “They really come into their own in the subtropical design. Trachycarpus blooms in early summer and emerges as yellow rosettes a little further down. On a male plant it looks like a pineapple fruit, on a female it looks like a big yellow bunch of grapes.”
Underplant container palms with spider plants or short-lived perennials like sage, he suggests.