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Fans and feathers

June 29, 2014


Young Mediterranean fan palm
Young Mediterranean fan palm

Palm trees, in all of their glorious forms, are making a rather hesitant come-back in gardening circles with, as always, the ‘feathers’ outstripping the ‘fans’ which, in many respects, is something of a shame as both varieties have much to offer.

Feather palms, more correctly referred to as ‘pinnate’, have the ‘typical’, feathery-shaped, elongated leaf fronds such as displayed on coconut palms, date palms and numerous ornamental versions of the same family. These, for some unknown reason, have gained a reputation of having the ability to thrive in soil conditions, especially brackish and saltish ones, in which fan palms are not so much at home although nothing could be further from the truth.

Fan palms, many of these belonging to the Washingtonia and Livistona families, are, on the whole, as equally comfortable in the aforementioned growing conditions as pinnate palms; these can be incredibly magnificent to look at when grown as either specimen plants or in thoughtfully landscaped surroundings.

Both of the above mentioned palm families thrive in coastal regions as well as in plains areas of the country — the only exception being coconut palms which are rarely comfortable if cultivated many miles from the sea. However, as is clearly evident to keen observers, none of the palm species are happy during periods of relatively cold, dry, winter weather, when bitter winds can create havoc by drying out their surprisingly delicate fronds which luxuriate in humidity not dryness.

Palm trees are making a come-back; they look good and are not difficult to grow

It could well be that feather palms, especially coconuts and dates, are selected over fan palms for their fruiting ability yet some fan palms, quite a number of species in fact, produce delectable, edible fruit too with the Mediterranean fan palm, Chamaerops humilis — this is grown in Pakistan — being a prime example.

Sadly, very few people realise that the highly attractive, often very large, bunches of shiny deep purplish black berries of Mediterranean fan palm are perfectly edible when correctly prepared in the kitchen.

It is true to say that fan palms are usually slower growing and less tall than their feathery relatives but — and this is of ever increasing importance — they require far less water, are more drought tolerant and will survive far lower temperatures which, in our rapidly changing, erratic climate, is yet another plus point to be taken into account.

Cultivation requirements for the hundreds of different feather and fan palm species do vary but, on the whole, it would be fair to say that the vast majority prefer to grow in well drained, sandy soil — this may be brackish/saltish of course — in locations where high humidity is the average norm. Small and dwarf varieties of both are perfectly suitable for cultivation in large containers or large clay pots, providing drainage is good of course, with the slower growing ones being preferable to those that may outgrow their pots faster than one would like.

Planting palm trees, irrespective of variety, directly in the ground can, as long as they are pot-grown specimens at time of purchase, be carried out around the year unless they are flowering or fruiting in which case it is recommended that you wait until they have finished. The planting hole for each palm should be prepared at least two to three weeks in advance and should be at least twice the size (depth and width) of the palm root ball when it is extracted, very carefully, from its plant pot or plastic sleeve.

Remove the existing soil from the planting hole and mix it (unless it is already very sandy) at a rate of 35 per cent sand, 35pc soil, 30pc organic material such as homemade compost. Once thoroughly mixed and any large stones removed, shovel some of this back into the hole to a depth of approximately six inches and then sprinkle a good handful of organic potash on top of this, leaving the remainder of the planting hole empty until it is time to put in the selected new palm tree.

At this juncture and with great care as the roots are often very brittle, add, a little at a time, as much of the remaining soil mixture as you can, watering it down after every few inches, allowing it to settle prior to adding the next layer and so on until the hole is full. Do not stand the soil down with your feet: this compacts the earth and can cause root damage too. Watering the soil into place is a far better option. The soil around the new tree may require topping up after a week or two so please keep any ‘leftovers’ close by until the new tree has completely settled in.

Planting spaces between the trees varies tremendously from species to species so please ask the nursery person for guidance at the time of purchasing your plants/saplings.

Adding palms, especially useful varieties, to your garden, can be a magnificent way of introducing height and structure, texture and year round interest so please do give fans and feathers a chance if you possibly can.

Do not consume any fruit unless you are 100pc certain that it is edible and, if in doubt, consult an expert.

Please continue sending your gardening queries to Remember to include your location. The writer will not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 29th, 2014