I was in Sicily to meet some palm folks, I thought it would be a good idea
to have a closer look at some natural stands of Chamaerops humilis.
So, the day before I left, a friend and I drove to a locality near S. Vito
Lo Capo, on the west side of the island. Approaching there, we started to
see some scattered plants, in the few strips of land between the sea and
the street—as we still were in a quite urban area. But as soon as we
left the nearest town a few kilometers behind, the plants became more
frequent. As we neared the next town, we drove threw some small
countryside streets that ended at the sea. From the car, we were able to
see a nice scenery of some rocky hills rising from just a few meters from
the beach. Leaving the car and walking a bit, we came to a true ‘green
sea’ of palms (Fig. 1).
we are used to seeing this plant everywhere—in public and private
gardens—it was a good feeling for us to be surrounded by a countless
number of palms. The more intriguing thought for me, was to see how
pleasant was the view (Fig.2) without any landscaper’s design, being
made just from Nature’s stroke. A lonely clump almost on the ridge of
the beach, caught another click of my camera (Fig.3) .
I started to look in more detail at the Chamaerops habitat. In
habitat, this palm is now confined to the more inhospitable areas, far
from human activities. Soil is a rocky limestone, and vegetation consists
of primarily short spiny bushes, like Olea europea oleaster (wild
olive tree) and Calicotome spinosa (spiny broom or gorse), and
geophytes (bulbs) like Asparagus aculeatus (wild asparagus),
Scilla maritima (sea onion), and Allium spp. (garlics)
natural distribution of C. humilis is along the western
Mediterranean Sea, ranging from eastern Spain, through North Africa, and
into the Atlas Mountains—where the blue C. humilis var. cerifera
occurs—and on to western Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia (Fig. 5). It doesn’t occur
in Corsica, perhaps because it dislikes acid soils. It is also absent from
all of the Middle East. This palm hasn’t found many uses by the
locals—unlike Phoenix dactylifera—because its fruits are not
edible and its hearts are bitter. The only uses have been for making
weaving works and cheap brooms, and for filling mattresses in times of
Chamaerops is a palm perfectly adapted to the Mediterranean climate, where a long dry season is present and rainfall is concentrated in spring and autumn. The palm produces a waxy coat underneath its leaves to protect the plant from drying out in extreme heat, and giving them a bluish cast (Fig. 6).
Its reproductive cycle is
also influenced by the seasons. In fact, flowering
occurs in late winter to allow the plants to intake enough water to set
and develop viable seeds (Fig. 7). In years of prolonged drought, the palms do not
set seed. Dispersal of seeds is made by mice, and, perhaps not
coincidentally, the ripe fruits smell somewhat like cheese.
wild plants grow much lower and slower than the cultivated specimens,
being almost trunkless and having either no or just a few suckers. A very
few palms in habitat exhibit a small trunk, rarely exceeding 50 cm, and
they are then very old specimens or they grow in a pocket of more fertile
clay soil. On the other hand, the cultivated plants have been selected by
generations of nurserymen, choosing always the biggest and most robust
specimens, collecting seeds from these and so on. It isn’t rare to see
in old public squares and gardens, specimens of 7-8 m of trunk
Chamaerops in cultivation is an extremely variable species, and many varieties have been described based on leaves and fruit size/color differences. Suitable for poor alkaline soils, tolerant of salt winds, free from pests, very cold and drought hardy, tough as old boots, this palm will grow steadily even neglected and is one of the best palms for a beginner.
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