GROWING EXOTIC PLANTS IN NORTHERN UK.

 

Many people imagine that the growing of exotic plants such as bamboos, palms, bananas and even tree ferns is impossible in the Northern areas of the UK. This is just NOT true and with a careful choice of plant types you'd be surprised with the results that a number of people manage to achieve. You can read about bamboos in the North UK at this page, so here we'll concentrate on the other types of exotics, the palms, tree ferns and bananas.

Ignore the washing line! This photo was taken in my Manchester garden and shows two palms, the left one is almost 6 foot in total height having grown to its present size from around 1 foot high around 5 years ago.

The first question one always gets asked is "What types of palm trees grow in Northern England". Ask any palm enthusiast and you'll get two types quoted before any others, Trachycarpus Fortunei (Chusan Palm) and Chamaerops Humilis (Nediterranean Fan Palm) both of which will withstand temperatures down to around -12 to -15 degrees. Of the two, the Chusan Palm is probably the hardiest. Are these two varieties hard to grow? Definately not, mine were just stuck in the ground and left to fend for themselves. The cost of these two types of Palm varies widely dependent firstly on where one buys it from ...... but more importantly ...... on it's size. A one year old specimen can be had for less than £5, a "small" one for under £20 and so on. Forget the massive "full size" one you saw on your Continental holiday, you can spend up to £1,000 for one of those!

Other fairly hardy varieties which will grow in the north are Sabal Palmetto (Palmetto Palm - down to -11C), Jubea Chilensis (Chilean Wine Palm - down to -10C), Butia Capitata (Butia or Jelly Palm - down to -9C). One palm which does DEFINATELY grow in the north is the Phoenix Canariensis, the Canary Island Date Palm - it is in fact listed as surviving temperatures down to -18C. There is however one proviso ...... you need to buy a fairly big one (with a trunk of the order of 9 inches or even a foot tall) in order for it to withstand our northern winters. The smaller ones just can't take it and I've lost a few before I realised the problem. Unfortunately many garden centres sell small Canary Island Palms as if they were totally hardy. They are NOT. You have been warned!

Washington Filifera

One fairly exotic palm is the Washingtonia Filifera (Cotton Palm), the one that you often see lining the streets in parts of California. This will withstand temperatures down to about -8C but in reality the leaves need to be bunched together in winter and protected with horicultural fleece or something similar. They are REALLY easy to grow from seed, proably the easiest palm seeds of the lot to germinate. Last year I was growing them like weeds in my COLD greenhouse ... that is .... until the mice invaded it and took great delight in wolfing down the bulk of the crop.

 

TREE FERNS.

Tree ferns originate in Australasia and are slowly but surely growing in popularity year by year.

Although tree ferns look extremely exotic, they are in fact fairly easy to both grow and to look after. They are extremely slow growing (one inch a year if you're lucky) and they have virtually no roots, the trunk acting as the "roots". They do need a little protection in the winter but mine seem to survive year after year with some straw or moss stuffed down into the crown to protect next years emerging leaves. In extreme areas some folk wrap the trunk in a bit of old carpet or hessian for added protection. The leaves die each winter but next year the new shoots appear. Some people go to great lengths to protect their tree ferns with excessive protection and the most incredible watering systems (trickling water down the trunks endlessly) - but I can assure you that here in Manchester they seem to manage quite well without any of this titivation - although mine may grow slower than theirs.

Tree ferns are expensive, because of both their rarity value, their great age and because only a limited number are allowed to be exported each year. Many different varieties are available with differening levels of hardiness, but the most commonly grown variety is Dicksonia Antarctica for which you would expect to pay around £30 for one with a 1ft high trunk up to £150 for one with a 5 foot trunk. Tiny ones can be had for less than £10 but you'd need to be planting it as a teenager to stand any chance of ever seeing it fully grown.

 

BANANAS.

Although a number of different types of Banana trees will grow in the UK, none will produce edible fruit. Banana trees are grown for their huge leaves. Even small banana trees grown in pots have these large leaves. In summer, if they are given endless supplies of water plus a little fertilizer, Banana plants grow remarkably fast. They can be grown in the ground or in plantpots. The problem with them is that they are NOT fully hardy - the ROOTS can actually withstand quite a few degrees of frost but both the leaves and the trunks cannot stand northern climates and rot very easily. That is NOT to say that they cannot be grown in the garden but it will require major protection ranging from wrapping the trunk in a thick carpet or many layers of hession (after cutting off the leaves) to the perfectionist who will build a wooden frame round the plant and filling it with straw. When spring arrives even the most carefully protected plant looks totally dead with a rather sodden soft top ....... but like magic, new leaves suddenly and unexpectedly appear and away you go again for another year. In Northern UK I have seen banana trees growing to over 12 feet in height with 6 foot long leaves (a leaf can grow in a week!).

I had hoped to show a large banana here - but last summer my over enthusiastic gardener sliced it to the ground with a "stimmer" (bananas have VERY soft fleshy trunks). Instead, you'll have to be satisfied with a photo of some one year old plants in pots which will be planted out in next summer (it's January 2004 as I'm writing this) after wintering in the greenhouse.

There are many different varieties of banana tree available but the accepted hardiest of the lot is Musa Basjoo although many other varieties are available. They are available in some of the larger garden centres or from specialist exotic dealers. You can buy them at any price from £10 upwards. Give them a try! The leaves are stunning.

Don't hesitate ...... you CAN grow exotic plants in Northern England.

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