Will all the other members of the Phoenix family …

Will all the other members of the Phoenix family please stand up … Part three

I DON’T know if any of my readers come from a big family – do you? In this good but not too fair life, you can compare the Phoenix family with, let’s say, seven siblings of a large multiracial family.

Eldest son, the hard worker, Phoenix dactylifera, the productive true date palm – a natural born winner. Number two, bit too smart for his own good, that’s the sexy Phoenix reclinata, the Senegal Date Palm, our clumping palm – a real show off.

Number three, time for a real ‘thickie’ – Phoenix canariensis, the Canary Date Palm. A slow, higher maintenance model – she does look good when mature and well cared for, but, if left untended, she has a droopy crown, a little yellowing of the leaves and a scruffy trunk.

Phoenix canariensis was one of the first commercial palms to hit the shores of Portugal and is one of the most widely grown and appreciated ornamental palms of the world. Its native habitat, the Canary Islands, is renowned for its richness in climatic diversity and its endemic flora. This Phoenix apparently did not radiate, as did many other plants, but succeeded in colonising many different ecological niches. In present times, Phoenix canariensis is sparsely and unevenly distributed on all the islands of the Canaries. It is very scarce on the two drier islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, while on the other islands, it grows at lower altitudes in the northern sections. Fascinatingly, it creates part of the bosque termofilo, a Mediterranean subxeric (slightly dry landscapes), of which, unfortunately, there is very little now, due to its replacement by hotels and their unsuitable tropical gardens, tower blocks and discotheques.

Here in our own Algarve gardens, take care when planting a Canariensis. The Canary Date Palm is really suited as a background plant. With a leaf span of up to six metres in diameter, and slightly more invasive roots than the other Phoenix members, it should be kept well away from houses and terraces. It would potentially grow even in England, as it is tolerant right down to minus nine celcius, but it loves heat and sun – sounds a bit like me really!

Phoenix number four, the academic son, rarely seen and keen to stay – the Phoenix silvestris. With a tall willowy trunk and strong crown of very prickly leaves, the Silver Date Palm is rarely seen in Portugal. Look occasionally in Sintra or the Botanic Gardens in Lisbon and you will see them. I have one in a pot at QM for inquisitive readers. Along with master Silvestris, we have around five close cousins (Phoenix loureirii, Phoenix rupicola, Phoenix paludosa and Phoenix hanceana, all native of India and East Asia, and the Cretan Date Palm, the endangered Phoenix theophrasti).

All are rarely seen in Europe, although anyone visiting Florida really should take a detour if close to Miami International Airport. Only eight miles west of the airport is one of the greatest collections of palms in the world and one can see at least seven different genus of Phoenix. Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens is the gardeners’ Disneyworld; it also has the advantage of costing a lot less to get in than the other one.

Finally, let me introduce the little sister, minor of the family but prettiest and most controllable – the Dwarf Pigmy Palm, Phoenix roebelinii. If readers walk up to the aquatic section at QM, they will see a nearly full-sized Pigmy Palm. At two-and-a-half metres, and with a very gentle root system, this palm is ideal for containers and flowerbeds around swimming pools and tight terraces. It can be damaged by frost, although will recover as soon as the weather gets warm – remove any browned outer leaves from April onwards. The fronds are soft and can be walked through – try doing that with the first three members of Mr. and Mrs. Phoenix family!

If you walk from this Phoenix roebilinii across the road, you will see an example of a mature Phoenix canariensis that I planted 21 years ago. At least 21 years after planting a small P. canariensis, you too can lie on a bench and ponder the words of my friend Jimmy Buffet:

“My garden is full with papayas

and mangos

My life is a mixture of reggaes

and tangos

Taste for the good life, I can

live no other way

While out on the beach are two

empty chairs

That say more than the people

who ever sit there

From under my lone palm I

can look out all day.”

Of course, if you want to save a year or two, pop down to QM and check out their selection of mature palms.

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. Changes abound at QM this year with a spring fair on May 1. The official opening of their 18-hole crazy golf course is on June 6 and, later in the year, the opening of an 18-hole putting green to add to their existing lawn bowling club. More activities will be added, as funds allow, in order to enhance QM as an entertainment centre for tourists and importantly residents alike. QM is open from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday, and 9am to 1pm on Saturday. Open seven days a week from June 6. Telephone 289 999 613.

By Stuart Merelie