Hunting for Chamaerops
By Angelo Porcelli

Figure 1. Green 'sea' of palms

While 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).

Figure 2. View of Chamaerops
habitat (and the author)

Figure 3. Lonely clump by the sea

Although 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).

Figure 4. Associated vegetation

Figure 5. Distribution of 
Chamaerops humilis

Figure 6. Blue form

Then, 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) (Fig. 4).

The 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 poverty.

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).

Figure 7. Inflorescence (yellow)
and mature fruit

Figure 8. A very old specimen 

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.

The 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 (Fig. 8).

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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