Reading my latest catalogue – for a plant lover inclined to be distracted, this time of year has many perils – I discovered, yet again, something new and amazing: hardy date palms. From Russia.
For me, catalogue reading is something akin to a pleasurable meditation with a sacred text. Each entry conjures a slightly different vision of Paradise. I read them over and over, moving my lips to the holy words, making notes in the margins like a Talmudic scholar, probing the deeper meanings. To drag me away from catalogue-reading is to pull me out of Eden.
So when I say that hardy date palms were a revelation to me, you know what it means.
Of course I have seen palms in odd enough places that I knew some were kind of hardy. By kind of, I mean that they tend to look scruffy and discontented, but they persist. There are two palms in my area which live in this kind of half-world: one is protected by an old church wall and courtyard; the other is in a hot spot in a hot microclimate. I’m not good on palms, so I don’t know what type they are: short and stubby, with a few tattered brown-edged leaves, is the best description I can give. No matter how warm or protected the spot, my zone 8 climate (with occasional dips well below freezing) has not been my idea of the place for palms.
When it’s cold, it’s pleasant to dream about a tropical (or at least semi-tropical) paradise. My Western Garden Book showed me that palms are a many-genused family; Phoenix, the genus date palms are in, has several other species. All palms like shade when they’re young. Considering their natural habitats, this makes sense; bigger trees and shrubs would shade them as seedlings in the wild. Palms of every variety are used as garden plants, potted plants, and specimens, as far north as Edinburgh, southern Russia, and the Pacific Northwest.
One Green World, whose catalogue gave me the vision of my hardy date palm, is located in Oregon: their palm tree section is headed by a picture of a very healthy-looking Windmill Palm growing in a nearby town. They’ve had a long-term association with breeding programs in the former Soviet Union, resulting in some unusual offerings in fruits and other edibles. (They also have an edible lily from China: the roots are used like water chestnuts.) The eight hardy palms they offer are from the town of Sochi, Russia, where they have naturalized.
Sadly, the date palm they offer does not bear edible fruit (this is often the case with borderline plants), but it is hardy to 12 degrees F (-11 C), which means it would just squeak by in a cold spell in my climate. (It’s a little disconcerting to think that my area has the same climate as southern Russia, but never mind.)
The Jelly Palm, Butia capitata, is a slow-growing South American tree which “produces long spikes of attractive white flowers followed by juicy, tasty yellowish-orange fruit which ca be eaten fresh and is used to make tasty jams and jellies.” For those who have never had them (I’m sorry), fresh dates are about the same color. I don’t know if the flavor of Jelly Palm fruits is similar, but it’s tempting to try. It’s self-fertile and hardy to 15 degrees F (-9 C), which would make it a possibility…
Here’s one gateway to paradise. Ask yourself : “Where would palm trees fit in my garden?” If you garden in a temperate zone, it brings on Rousseau-like* absinthian surrealistic visions. If you’re in the tropics, it may lead to thoughts of working with the natural landscape, which gets pretty surreal itself, when you think about it deeply. In either case, you’re envisioning a new kind of garden, a place where plants of many cultures meet happily; a place where miracles happen: a Paradise.
*Henri, not Jean-Jacques.