No beach in the UK looked remotely like that: it was years later that I glimpsed my first grove of bona-fide palms as I drove a rickety car across Southern Spain.
With global warming, things have changed. There is now a licuala palm within a stone’s throw of my London apartment. But palms remain quintessentially tropical, not only graceful additions to most gardens but among the easiest plants to cultivate. The range is simply vast. Maybe 2,000 species. One Thai collector, I read, has no fewer than 90 different varieties of fan palms.
Coconut palm (cocos nucifera)
Any discussion of palm trees ought to start with the coconut palm (cocos nucifera). After all, it is the most famous and the most useful tree in Southeast Asia, and life without it in Thailand would be unthinkable to Thais.
Every little bit has its uses – the flesh, the milk, the husk, the wood, the leaves. Most Thai curries contain coconut milk or pulp, and the juice not only makes a refreshing drink but is the only naturally occurring liquid to have exactly the same pH as blood plasma.
When dried, the husk (copra) yields commercial oils, and the fronds make durable thatching. The wood is strong and wonderfully grained, and the fibre can be woven into mats and canopies. And what would we gardeners do without coconut husk? All in all, cocos nucifera is a treasure…
This palm is too grand for the average garden, reaching as much as 30 metres in height, and its heavyweight nuts are a potential hazard to anyone passing below. Nonetheless, its elegant form, with its huge, pinnate fronds carried at the top of the trunk, graces many parks and vistas with distinction. A pity then that commercial coconut groves are currently in rapid decline, a consequence of the twin-pronged attack of developers and hispine beetles.
Fortunately, dwarf varieties are available. Indeed, many growers prefer the accessibility of fruit that do not need specialised climbers or macaque monkeys to get at them. And for the tropic gardener, they are a much better bet. “Malay Dwarf”, for example, has a short trunk and heavy crops of yellow nuts.
Royal palm (roystonea)
Of other large palms, several are grown as specimen ornamentals, often dominating large open areas, expansive lawns, or fronting high walls. The grandest of these is roystonea, appropriately know as the royal palm.
Recognisably a palm with a characteristic long, smooth, ringed trunk, grey in colour and sometimes swollen near the base, it is surmounted by a crown of green, pinnate leaves. Just the blades of these leaves may be more than 20 inches long. It produces fragrant white, cup-shaped flowers and purplish-black, inedible fruits.
When mature, its height can rival that of cocos nucifera, so it is not a candidate for the intimate garden. Like most palms, it likes moist, fertile soil and plenty of sun. It is seen to good effect when grown along tree-lined avenues.
Bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis)
A better choice for the medium to large garden is the Bismarck palm. A native of Madagascar where it is, ironically, in serious decline, Bismarckia nobilis is an ornamental species which provides a talking point wherever it is encountered.
A fan palm with amazing glaucous fronds that may be six or eight feet across, their grey-green colour and circular, divided appearance gives the tree an exotic and striking character. Instead of appearing at the top of a tall, slender stem, these fronds appear symmetrically on massive stalks that grow out from the thick trunk most of the way up the bole.
My specimen has just produced huge clusters of shiny, marble-sized, black fruits that resemble small grapes. Though inedible, the flesh can be stripped away, and the bare seeds planted in deep soil. Germination will take two to three months.
Traveller palm (ravenala madagascariensis)
The jargon of gardening is full of anomalies. Take the traveller palm. It is not strictly speaking a palm at all, but a banana. Nonetheless, the popular name survives and gardeners regard it as a member of the palm family. What is more important is its value to us as gardeners, especially when planted along a wall where it can show off its good looks.
But remember that ravenala madagascariensis is a spreading and rapidly growing tree which will, in time, develop a squat, thick trunk from which radiate as many as 30 banana-like leaves.
The majestic beauty of ravenala lies in its wonderfully symmetrical shape, a narrow fan which allows it to dominate borders without crowding out smaller plants which can survive before or behind its giant but slender form, with its narrow alignment of enormous, paddle-shaped fronds.
The traveller palm needs little maintenance, storing its own supply of water at the base of each stem. That, incidentally, is how it got its common name: the palm will offer up a cooling drink to the knowing and thirsty traveller. It will accept full sun or partial shade, but if you want to retain its characteristic symmetry, you will need to cut away the many offshoots that appear around its base. These same offshoots can be repotted to create new palms.
Foxtail palm (wodyetia)
Another favourite and one I regret not featuring in my own garden is the foxtail palm. Wodyetia is not as grand or dramatic as Bismarckia or ravenala, but it is the most graceful of trees. A quintessential palm, it possesses a slim, smooth, ringed trunk and a crown of long, delicate fronds from which the leaflets radiate all around its rib, hence the resemblance to a fox’s brush.
It is becoming a preferred subject for landscaping in Thailand and, because of its dainty appearance, as an ornamental in small gardens. It is also widely employed for decorating urban avenues, both because of its neat appearance and low maintenance. The fruits are reddish and can be used for propagation. A must for your new garden.
Patrick has been writing for thirteen years about gardening in Phuket and allied topics. If you have horticultural or environmental concerns, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Many of his earlier creative and academic publications can be found at Wordpress: Green Galoshes.
Patrick will shortly be publishing ‘The Tropic Gardener’, an indispensable guide to Southeast Asia’s flowering plants, based on his experience of gardening in Phuket.