Editor: Well, not exactly a Coco Palm but a pretty good look-a-like. But No. California is certainly “up north,” as any plant from the tropics would agree. Its lucky for zone pushers that some “tropical plants” have more cold weather stamina than others. Many of those from elevation in the tropics have adapted to withstand cooler winters and the occasional freeze. But alas, the real Coco Palm is not one of them. But this new “stand in” has people talking, and trying to push that envelope, because everyone loves the look of the Coco Palm. However, for most everyone, this new species will have to do if you live outside the true tropics.
Here is an excellent article of one such gardener, and his experiences with this palm in No. California.
Beccariophoenix alfredii in Northern CA
by John Case International Palm Society – Northern California Chapter
The discovery of the 3 Beccariophoenix species around the beginning of the millennium engendered cold weather palm enthusiasts an opportunity to grow coconut lookalike trees where coconuts and many other coco-looking palms could not thrive, let alone survive. These 3 species, B. fenestralis (Windowpane Palm), B. madagascariensis (Manorano Palm), and B. alfredii (High Plateau Coconut Palm) are all from Madagascar and just recently have all been identified and given their scientific binomial classifications.
The aim of this article is to log the efforts I have made since 2008 to evaluate and possibly grow these palms in a temperate environment and more specifically, a Mediterranean climate.
In 2008, I ordered all 3 of these species from Floribunda Palms in order to evaluate and determine any viablility in my garden. At that time, I was just beginning my palmalholic tendencies and wanted something that no one else in my area had. I had been seriously gardening for about 10 years and looking to complete my landscape in my new home that we moved into in 2004 (for the record, this task is not yet complete nor will it ever be, probably). My readings in PalmTalk.org and other sources convinced me that this was worth a try.
My order was, as I recall, 4 inch specimens for each species. On receipt, I moved them directly into a 1 gallon pot. On reflection, and based on my experience today, a 2 gallon can would be a much better solution as these palms do have vigorous roots and appreciate the legroom. The results of this follows:
These seedlings took well to the transplant and developed new leaves during the summer months. The cans were in a spot that gave them morning sun and protection from the afternoon heat. I did this simply because they were grown in Hawaii, probably under shadecloth (I haven’t ever taken the time to ask Jeff Marcus) and wanted to prevent as much as possible, any leaf burn from the sun. These trees suffered greatly through the winters, even though we have been, on the whole, pretty mild the past few years. The next spring they recovered but not to the level of the prior year. Through a long and ugly summer they limped along. The 2nd winter was fatal to all but one, and it failed the following year. Under optimal conditions (in my yard, with a lot of microclimatization) they might survive, but I am not convinced that there is anything that would have then be anything but marginal. The low temperature I get in my yards hit 24-25 at least once each year; this appears to be well under the lower limit of the species.
These palms were planted in the same manner as the Windowpanes and did not appear to suffer at all from the transplant but also they didn’t exhibit any growth at all. They remained the same size through the summer and did not take the hit from the cold of winter. In their 2nd summer, I decided to put them in the ground and see what would happen since nothing was happening while they were pot bound. After putting them in the ground in the 2nd summer, the results were….no results. They continued to exist, but no growth at all. The following winter they succumbed to the cold. The literature suggested to me that B. madagascariensis is exceptionally slow growing, not just here but across the Golden State. I showed little patience for them, I’ll admit. I am thinking about getting a few more, albeit larger and will leave them in nursery cans for a longer time.
The last of these species and by far the most successful, not just in my yard but across the country, is the High Plateau Coconut. Nearly everyone that has tried it has had some level of success, especially those in Hawaii, Florida, and Southern CA. The point of this article, as stated above, is the story of success, although a little slower and lagging the areas stated above, which is pretty startling.
As the others, I potted up my initial seedlings into 1 gallon cans, which turned out to be a minor mistake. By the end of the summer, they had to be upsized to 5 gallon cans as the roots were growing out of the drain holes. Despite the lateness of the season, I made the transplant anyway, based on the aggressive growth they demonstrated during the summer and early fall. All of them made the transition, although there was some fairly severe leaf spotting during the winter. For the record, the medium was ½ commercial potting soil, ¼ homemade compost, and ¼ perlite. Since then, I have made changes to the medium in the cans based on the growth I see once they go into the ground. By the summer of 2010, they had to be upsized into 15 gallon cans or planted in the ground. 2 Of them went into the ground and the other were upsized to the 15 gallon cans. I then began to offer these trees to others. They were 5 to 6 feet tall from the bottom of the can to the tip, they had been repotted 3 times without incident, and were well rooted (again with roots growing out of the drain holes) in the final cans before I offered them for sale.
Over the years I have ordered, repotted and sold others to support my palmy habit and to also spread the word on how nice it would be to have a tree that looked similar to a coconut but would also survive the winter in Northern CA.
As of this writing, the trees I initially planted in the ground are over 8 feet tall to the tip and are showing the ‘shuttlecock’ growth of new leaves, just like a juvenile coconut. I have yet to develop a trunk and do not expect to see one for a number of years, as these trees are not as fast growing as one would hope but seem to be accelerating in growth rate as they get larger.
Notes – Observations and Experience
B. alfredii is a much tougher palm than one would expect. In one instance, I had to cut a large number of roots during a transplant. The tree did not blink. It continued to grow without any evidence of slowing. I also lost a central spear on one. I puller the spear, doused the apical area with hydrogen peroxide and the tree is now in the ground and recovering in its 2nd year since the treatment.
The aggressive root growth I had in the pots may be a result of the very soft growing medium they were planted in. I have never seen such rapid and massive root growth in any of my other plants, non-palm included. I think this trait of root growth is at the expense, to a certain extent, of crown growth. I look at this as a benefit for the time when the tree is moved into the ground. The roots appear to be excessive for the size of the leaf growth and the loss of root activity does not appear to impact leaf growth on transplant. I am guessing that the ease of which the roots can grow id due to them being in cans and soft medium, rather than hard clay or sand. For those who want to get a plant to size before putting it in the ground should take into account the medium in the can and the soil conditions where the plant will go.
I think the conditions my trees are in are also a factor in my success to date. They are on a south facing slope which is primarily sand based. The benefits for this are 1) maximum sunlight and heat no matter the season and 2) over watering may be possible but not probable. Excellent drainage, lots of sun and heat are my secrets to the successful growth in these palms today. I have had them since 2008 as 4-inch seedlings and they are now over 8 feet tall with a stem base over 8 inches across. When pushing on the tree, it moves very little and only in the flex of the stem, the base is rooted in solidly.
The trees have experienced a winter cold of 24 degrees more than once, although it was only for a few hours a day and never for more than 4 days consecutively. They are incredibly slow during the winter, in fact, I think they do not grow at all (I have not used the magic marker technique to gauge any growth, but I might this winter) and speed up from the late spring through late fall. I think the controlling factor on growth is not high temperatures or length of daylight but the lows of the day. Once the lows get below 45 degrees, it seems like these trees go into stasis until higher low temperatures are again in place. This temperature is a guess but it certainly seems a likely trigger.
These trees will probably never be offered via a commercial nursery in CA. They are too slow for the average wholesaler; they would require a large amount of water while in nursery cans, and the demand for these trees is not yet very large at all. Many people that have the palm bug already possess one or more and they are not inexpensive. Perhaps when we get a seeding specimen thing will be different but in the foreseeable future, getting one from a backyard gardener (such as me and a few others) or a small operation specializing in rare or hard to obtain plants will be the norm for Northern CA.
Older leaves do brown significantly during the winter, with each year a little brown burn shows more significantly on older leaves. I do not remove leaves until such time as they are brown on the petiole at the base. You will see that in the photos that accompany this article below. The new leaves are green to the tips on my trees until the time that winter comes in and the low temps do brown the tips of the leaflets.
Mulching probably should be done with a sand or gravel medium. I have used some older small bark in the past and I think it actually held the trees back as the heat is needed, I think, to get these trees to perform at their optimum rate.
The next section tries to show the growth of the palms in the ground that I have. For the record, I have 3 in the ground but one is the tree that a spear pull was done 2 years ago that has been planted at an angle to see if it would right itself, just as a coconut palm.
The 4 photos below show 3 years of growth for one of the trees in the yard. The tree has grown from about 3 feet tall to around 8 feet tall. The third photo demonstrates the shuttlecock leaf form of the new growth. The last photo shows the stem base which is about 8 inches in diameter.
The first photo below shows the in ground tree in August 2012. It was planted in 2010 from a 15 gallon can. The 2nd photo shows its current state as of September 2015. It cannot be seen but a new spear that will probably open this year and add between 6 inches to a foot in its overall height. The base on this one is a little more robust than the first. The last photo shows a leaf detail that I really like!
A few random shots from around the yard of other specimens I have. One of the trees in a pot will be planted in Sep 2015 in a more exposed area.
These trees still have some proving to do. Until we have a trunking and flowering specimen, it is my opinion that these tress are speculative at best for the Northern California garden. We have had some incredibly good if dry weather in recent years and have yet to see if these trees (in various sizes) can deal with a freeze below 24 degrees and longer than 1 day. The chances are not slim given the history of this area.
In the meantime, growing these trees to canopy size (they are, after all, very large trees) should be the goal of anyone attempting to grow them.