Planting palm trees in the south of France may seem easy, but it is anything but.
This week we have been planting palm trees on the lower terrace at Le Fort Pouzols-Minervois. One is a Chinese windmill palm (trachycarpus fortunei), the other a queen palm (syagrus romanzoffiana).
There are, of course, similarities between the two plants. Both require lots of water and feeding. Both will take around three years to settle in, before growing rapidly.
But the differences are mainly in the way they can cope with the weather in Pouzols-Minervois. The Chinese windmill palm is hardy down to -20°C and therefore a safe and popular choice for many gardeners all over France.
The queen palm or cocos palm is a bit more tricky to grow. It certainly looks strikingly elegant along the promenades of the Côte d’Azur. But it is only frost-hardy down to -7°C. As French vineyards have experienced in February, such frosts are rare but not impossible. A bit of fleece around the plant as it grows may be needed to protect the palm.
Planting palm trees is so popular in the south of France that we often forget that they are not native species. Since Roman times palm trees have been introduced to the region, so perhaps they can be considered almost native.
Palm trees have been planted all over the south of France since mass tourism arrived. Between 1867 and 1878, many palm trees were planted in parks and other public spaces along the coast.
Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, local Councils all over the south of France started ripping out the native umbrella pines to replace them with palm trees. It looked better, more exotic, in the travel brochures.
In recent years, the dreaded palm weevil has devastated many fine palm trees. Biological treatment to defeat this beetle included the use of nematodes. Sadly the palm weevil attacks not only unhealthy palm trees, but healthy ones too.
It will take at least 15 years before the two palm trees on our lower, south-facing terrace will reach mature height. When they do, they will certainly enrich the setting. But there is always a chance of a late frost doing damage unexpectedly.
Planting palm trees is a bit like getting a dog: you know that they not last forever, but you love and enjoy them while they last.