The best of the rest – part six.jpg

The best of the rest – part six

WHO IS your hero? I have always had a penchant for explorers: Scott, Livingstone, Indiana Jones and Michael Pallin. But there is one man, who to an everyday-same-route-to-work type like me, really deserves a film or two to be made about him – Reginald Farrer. Tormented from birth by physical and later on emotional misfortune, Farrer was one of those “born to an endless night”. Yet, in the realm of horticulture, his many faults were turned to advantages and he became one of the great plant hunters, collecting new species from the mountains of Tibet and China.

Farrer returned to Tibet in 1920 for a fourth plant hunting trip, but without the previous funding. He decided to camp in a tent over winter to await the arrival of spring, but fell ill in October 1920 with a cough and chest pains. When ill, it was his habit to dose himself with the entire contents of his medicine box, taken indiscriminately with whisky. However, this time he worsened, got more breathless and fainted more often. His servant, Bhanje Bhanju, ran to Konglu for help. He made the week’s journey in three days, not resting on the way, but on October 17, 1920, Farrer died.

His legacy to us is very small really. He was the Elisabeth David of gardening books; his books were among the first popularly released to the public. My Rock Garden (published 1913) and The English Rock Garden (published 1918) are better than anything Messrs Titmarsh, Monty Don or Dimmock and Co. will ever produce.

On rock gardens, “use as little rock as possible, better by far 10 big rocks than 100 small ones”. On climates, he wrote: “what serves in Yorkshire loam is fatal in Suffolk sand, that sunny Sussex favours, Cumberland’s rainfall makes deadly”. Worth thinking about, when you consider Loulé is the wettest area of the Algarve and Tavira the driest!

Trachycarpus fortunii, The Chusan Palm, one of the hardiest palms around. Farrer noted its use when he saw it in China. This is a very good, tough, pretty palm that will grow to around eight metres in 10 years.

Also from China and Japan is my personal favourite palm – Livingstonia chinensis. With shiny large drooping leaves and a trunk similar to the Washingtonias, it makes an interesting addition to any palm collection. We have some lovely small ones at QM Garden Centre at the moment. Livingstonia chinensis also tolerates frost – as seen in the author’s garden.

As well as the chinensis, we also see Livingstonia australis, which is quite different to any other palm in the Algarve, with its clean slender trunk and interesting looking leaf scars. Livingstonia australis is instantly recognisable due to its interesting and sparse crown. If you are short of space or want a palm close to your swimming pool, then Syagrus romanzoffianum is a good rent payer. This is the queen palm and seen at its best all around Faro airport. It is quick growing up to 10 metres, sheds few leaves, and has a very limited root spread. When you plant one, ensure good drainage and lots of good old-fashioned manure.

Syagrus romanzoffianum. Annoying, also called (wrongly) Arecastrum or Cocus nucifera. For every queen there should be a king, and in the palm world there is the Archontophoenix alexandrae. Native to sub tropical Australia and seen widely in the streets of Cairns, Australia, it is not too successful here in the Algarve. If readers wander up to the pond area at QM Garden Centre, they can see the king and queen together. The king does not like the heat, wind and low humidity of the Algarve, and should not really be planted here unless you have a large enclosed winter garden.

Archontophoenix alexandrae – the king palm but really a pauper compared to the successful queen palm.

If you seek something different palmwise for your garden, the Neodypsis decaryi is mind-blowingly beautiful. The triangle palm has a totally unique three-sided trunk. Native to Madagascar, it is a tough number, growing to about six metres tall and requiring little water when established.

How to win friends and influence people; plant a Neodypsis dacari in your garden and casually spout out the name when asked!

There are other palms that grow and can be seen in the Algarve, but I have not described them due to the difficulties of cultivation. My father tried several times to grow Caryota urens (the Foxtail palm), Bismarkia nobilis (the Bismark palm) and lots of others. I guess the answer is to admire these magnificent palms in their natural habitat. A word of warning though – be a little more careful than my hero, Reginald Farrer ….

Readers are invited to visit QM Garden Centre. It is located on the road in-between Santa Bárbara de Nêxe and Estoi. For visitors further away, leave the Algarve motorway at Junction 14 (signposted São Brás/Faro) and turn left immediately then after 500m left again. The 18-hole crazy golf course and 18-hole putting green are now both fully open, as well as the existing lawn bowling club and table tennis centre. There is a massive gala night taking place at QM on Friday, July 7 from 7pm – entitled The QM Liquid Olympics, with 10 different food stalls, bar and lots of silly games – in aid of the Refúgio Aboim Ascensão children’s home in Faro. Tickets are two euros on the door. QM is open from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday, and 9am to 1pm Saturday. Open seven days a week from July 1. Telephone 289 999 613.  

This article is dedicated to my father, Garth Ian Merelie, who in April 1973 was awarded one of the highest awards in the Alpine Garden Society – the Reginald Farrer memorial medal.