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Green Thoughts: Practical palms

In many countries, palms are grown not for their aesthetic charms, but because they produce edible fruit in the most unpromising conditions. While they have been important throughout recorded history, especially in hot, arid regions, nowadays they are assuming even greater commercial importance as cash crops.

By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 15 December 2019, 02:00PM

Date palm (phoenix dactylifera)

Date palms are more associated with the Middle East than southern Asia, but they are grown in the tropics. Indeed, since they are so familiar with arid conditions, they are probably the hardiest of all palm trees. Often single stemmed, they sometimes sprout as a clump from a single root system, after the manner of the yellow cane palm. They will take four years at least to produce the characteristic orange fruit.

The common date palm (phoenix dactylifera) and the Canary Island species (canariensis) are both found sparingly here, but they are large (the crown of a mature tree may span ten metres) so a better choice for the garden is probably the pygmy date palm (P. roebelenii) which comes, surprisingly, from Laos. These palms have thick trunks topped by delicate, fern-like fronds, and rarely grow to more than a couple of metres in height. And of course, they still produce delicious fruit. An excellent choice as a specimen tree. Unlike the coconut palm which is such a feature of the Thai landscape, roubelenii should be cultivated here more often. Go for it…

Oil palm (elaeis oleifera)

The date palm is not the only commercial palm that you might consider as a presence in your garden. Oil palms have an unenviable reputation. True, they are an important cash crop in southern Thailand and Malaysia, the source not only of Thailand’s most-used cooking oil, but also of biofuel. However, and so conservationists maintain, these plantations exist at the expense of biodiverse rainforest, of vanishing peat swamps and much else besides. Hardly surprising that elaeis oleifera should be both environmentally vilified and commercially valued. Indeed, palm oil is an ingredient in more than two-thirds of all products on your supermarket shelves. But such ubiquity comes at a price.

But they can also contribute to your garden in an unlikely fashion. If you want to grow ferns, maybe you should look no further than acquiring an oil palm. Ferns quickly populate the damp, fertile pockets that exist all the way up the palm’s shady stems – everything from maidenhair and Boston ferns (nephrolepis) to bird’s nest ferns (asplenium), even stag’s horn (platycerium) and elkhorn ferns. True, their hosts are substantial trees – up to ten metres tall – but they are easy enough to grow.

Sugarpalm (borassus flabellifer)

CMI - Thailand

Another palm associated more with commercial activity than aesthetic value is the sugar palm (borassus flabellifer), which is grown in huge plantations for its sweet sap called “‘toddy” that’s converted into sugar or, more bizarrely, into a fermented drink. The tree forms a distinctive silhouette with a thick, knobbly trunk and huge fan-shaped leaves, but it can look effective, provided it regularly has its lower, discoloured branches cut away. But though every part of this palm is variously used in Southeast Asia for timber, thatching and food, you will need a large garden to accommodate it.

Betel nut palm (areca catechu)

To conclude, one should mention the betel nut palm or areca catechu. Traditionally, it has been cultivated in the Kingdom for its hard “nuts”, the source of a mild narcotic and masticated by generations of Thais along with betel leaves. But it is quite an attractive palm, relatively small, with a single multi-ringed trunk and a crown of dark fronds. The nuts appear as a large cluster on a single rigid stem which juts horizontally from the bole below the crown.

However, for value as garden palms, I would still go with the Bismarck palm, the traveller palm, the yellow cane palm, the red sealing-wax palm and the foxtail palm as the best choices for your tropic garden. Livistona, with wide-spreading feathery, drooping leaves is also very popular. As for dense ground cover, you would be hard-pushed to find a better choice than the rhapis or lady palm which, like the wine palm, will tolerate deep shade. To reiterate: it grows in graceful clumps with slender and fan-shaped leaves and rarely exceeds two metres. And it remains the best of all palms to grace your living room as a potted specimen.

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 drpaccampbell@gmail.com 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.

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