The Casual Gardener: Palms bring a taste of the Tropics to Irish gardens

The first step to creating your own tropical paradise has to be a palm…

A selection of potted palms – the appeal of the palm lies in its exoticism

IF SOMEBODY tells you they have a palm tree in their garden, they're probably under a misapprehension. It’s more likely a Cordyline australis. It’s an easy enough mistake to make though, as these strappy-leaved, spiky architectural trees do conform to what we commonly regard as a palm.

In fact they're considerably closer to a palm than a Leyland Cypress (leylandii), which is what I recall St Brigid's Church in Downpatrick was decked out with one Palm Sunday in the mid-1970s – a dubious display that I believe could have contributed in a small way to my steady disillusionment with organised religion.

The majority of genuine palms require a warm tropical or subtropical climate but there are some hardy enough to withstand the Irish weather without winter protection.

The appeal of the palm lies in its exoticism – surround yourself with palms, bamboos, bananas and New Zealand flax and you can easily kid yourself you’re in the South Seas. This combination works particularly well in the sandy soils of coastal gardens, though the palms won't necessarily thank you for planting them in an exposed position.

Those authentic palms most suited to our climate include the Canary Island date palm – Phoenix caneriensis – which has green feathered, pinnate leaves and a distinctive stout trunk. It has the RHS's Award of Garden Merit and is hardy to –8C.

In optimum conditions these evergreens will grow up to 15 metres or more, spreading their branches wide. They produce drooping panicles of creamy-yellow flowers, followed by reddish-yellow fruits. Phoenix roebelenii has softer, more elegantly curved leaves than its cousin. With slender trunks, they’re available in various sizes, sometimes with several in a single pot.

Trachycarpus fortunei – or the Chinese windmill palm – is another proper palm that's as much at home in Camlough as it is in Doha. It too boasts a broad trunk from which a mass of fan-like leaves spill out and in summer support limp yellow flowers. Like many palms it can grow to a substantial size, which makes it suitable for dressing patios and driveways, and it can even cope with frost.

Hardy palms that you plan to locate permanently outdoors are best raised in containers initially and brought under cover during winter until well rooted. As they mature and the trunk thickens, they become more tolerant of subzero temperatures, though a little fleece won't go amiss during a prolonged cold snap.

Their ultimate site should be sheltered, as few palms tolerate windswept locations. They will grow slowly and require plenty of room so they're not forced to compete with other plants for light and moisture in the earth.

Of the 'imposter' palms, which look the part but don't have the necessary DNA, the yucca and the aforementioned Cordyline australis – AKA cabbage palm – are the widest used in pursuit of that ‘exotic’ look. We tend to associate yuccas with indoors but there are a number of hardy species available, such as Yucca flaccida, Y. gloriosa, and Y. filamentosa.

Yucca elephantipes is primarily a container plant that prefers to overwinter in frost-free conditions. With the yucca, the leaves can be green, yellow or white variegated, and green or russet on the Cordyline.

This long, leathery-leaved tree is arguably too common and has therefore lost its impact. Although not invasive, it has taken to Ireland’s climate enthusiastically.

It comes in many sizes – there’s even a small version for bedding, and larger sizes that’ll work on a balcony or patio. The most common varieties are ‘Red Star’ (red leaves) and ‘Verde’ (green leaves).

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