Tag Archives: Archontophoenix cunninghamiana

A Week in the Garden of Jury

Persimmons framed against the autumn blue sky

Our autumn days are not always like this. We have had a week of dreary, grey and cold weather interspersed with rain every day. It can be very dispiriting. But it is more common for us to have days like today’s glorious morning when the persimmons make a colourful sight. The intensity of light and colour we get all year round here is something we take for granted, in the main. It is not until I travel overseas that I realise this is not common in many other climates.

The persimmons are the old fashioned, astringent variety which need to be very soft and ripe to eat. I have a couple of trays ripening. This year I want to try mashing the flesh and semi-drying it as fruit leather to use in baking. Persimmons make a reasonable substitute for dried apricots. The birds are enjoying the majority of the crop which is still on the tree.

A barrow full of bangalow seed

I have written before about the invasive habits of the bangalow palm, Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, and why we think it should be on the banned list for commercial sale. Because ours are handsome plants, Mark has been loathe to get the chainsaw out to drop them but he does get the extension ladder out to cut off the seed. Behold a barrow full of seed, though Mark observes that many more fell off and are lying at the bottom of the trunk. The problem with the seed is that the birds spread it and it can out-compete our native nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida). I do wonder at what point Mark may reach for the chainsaw rather than the extension ladder, because allowing such prolific seed-set on plants we know are invasive is unacceptable in our personal gardening philosophy.

Bulding an extension to the banana frame, using giant bamboo

Protecting one of several bunches. We are currently eating our own, homegrown bananas

The extension ladder was also required for the covering of the bananas for winter. “I had to build an extension to the frame,” Mark said and that was no small task. The bananas are the one and only plant we cover for winter and with the best ever crop of ripening bananas, this was even more important this year. Being 5km from the coast as the crow flies, we are not quite frost free here. Most tender plants can cope with the occasional minor frost as long as we place them carefully, but the bananas are marginal at best and warrant the special attention if we want the crop.

As our maunga – or Mount Taranaki to non-NZ residents – has put her full winter raiment on this week, it was a close-run race between the covering of the bananas and the first cold snap of winter. Not that we have had a frost yet.

The ladybirds have moved inside to hibernate. They creep into the crevices of the upstairs wooden joinery which can make opening and shutting the windows challenging. I was fine with this annual event until a social media friend suggested that they looked to be the pest Harlequin ladybird which is a far grubbier and less desirable version of the charming, common ladybird. I suspect she is right, though the first reported incidence of the Harlequin ladybirds was up north in 2016 and we have had these hibernating critters for longer than that. So either they have been in the country longer than has been reported, or we have some other form of this beetle. I see there are 6000 different types of ladybirds so unravelling the different ones is beyond me. They are a bit messy, so I may flick them back out the windows with the duster.

Propping up the Ficus antiarus

I see it was April 11 when we had the last major treemageddon incident.  Our Lloyd – our incredibly obliging and handy man here – did a fantastic job to get the clean-up to this stage. The poor Ficus antiarus is but a shadow of its former self after being completely uprooted. It remains to be seen how tough it is in longer term survival. The 140 years of straight Pinus radiata trunk may be destined for firewood after all. We have been unable to find anybody with a chainsaw mill who could mill it on site for us. The poor stripped remnant of a plant to the left of the trunk in the second photo is, or maybe was, a fruiting macadamia tree.

Mark is now looking in askance at the splendid specimen of Abies procera ‘Glauca’, a magnificent tree that he is worrying may be a ticking time bomb here. We are usually philosophical about large trees that fall but that is because their location means they will fall without damaging power lines, drainage pipes or buildings. The abies, alas, is more likely to fall on our house and cause major damage. He is wondering if it is time for us to make the hard call and fell it in a safe direction. Every time he mentions this, he expresses regret that his father planted it so close to the house. But that is so often the story with big trees – most people never factor in their potential size as they reach maturity.

The Theatre of the Banana, as I describe the protection of the only plant we wrap for winter

Beware the bangalow (Arcontophoenix cunninghamiana)

A very handsome palm in the landscape, but scary weed potential

A very handsome palm in the landscape, but scary weed potential

The newest weed in the garden here is a palm. Not the native nikau palm, although that too seeds down freely and we regularly cull self sown seedlings. By definition, we don’t regard natives seeding down as weeds. No, the offending palm is the incredibly popular and very attractive bangalow palm. We have had it in the garden here for decades but it is only recently that it has started to set viable seed. It is a bit too efficient in the seeding stakes and, being attractive to birds, it has been dispersed throughout our entire property at a scary speed.

When alarm bells were first sounded in the Auckland area about bangalow palms, the howls of outrage and denial from within the nursery industry were instant and loud. We watched with a desultory interest and felt that it might not have been our industry’s finest moment. We need to take some responsibility for what we produce and we certainly have enough noxious weeds in this country without knowingly adding more. So we should look at the facts and the information, rather than immediately assuming that out of control bureaucrats are trying to control our livelihoods. The howls of alarm were such that the proposals to ban its sale were put on the back burner and its status is part of a five year review so nothing will happen quickly.

The so-called Chinese Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is also under threat of reclassification as noxious weed. While it has not proved a problem here in our garden, Mark has seen it seeding down and giving rise to a thicket of babies in the Nelson area. I have just found a photograph in the Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms showing it naturalised in Switzerland. Plants with a climatic range from Switzerland to Nelson and Northland have scary potential. Trachycarpus fortunei is enormously popular throughout the world because it is generally hardy but with that tropical and exotic look so frequently sought by gardeners irrespective of nationality. The big advantage of trachycarpus is that you need both male and female plants to set seed so if female plants were culled, it would not be a problem. Our specimens in the garden here are male so no seed is formed. And Mark’s guess is that the seed is not spread by birds because it only seems to fall to the base of the tree and sprout there, which makes it much easier to contain. The seedlings can be mown off, grubbed out or sprayed. If it was spread by birds, we would hear a great deal more about it appearing all over the place in parks and reserves.

Side by side germinating self-sown bangalows

Side by side germinating self-sown bangalows

But it is the bangalow that worries us more and that is because of our personal experience. There would hardly be a square metre of our garden (which stretches across several acres) where we have not found a bangalow germinating and in those early stages, they closely resemble young nikau palms. Left to its own devices, this Aussie import will threaten our native nikau swamping out the habitat and growing at a hugely faster rate. The proper name is Archontophoenix cunninghamiana and it grows naturally in the coastal forests of southern Queensland down into New South Wales. It is a most elegant palm, tall and graceful and growing sufficiently quickly to give a fast result. It can reach 20 metres when mature, but like many palms, it takes up little space and casts little shade. It is easy to grow but it is also tougher than many palms and will tolerate cooler temperatures – light frosts, even – and damper conditions. It is that easy-going nature which has made it so popular and useful as a garden and landscape plant in relatively mild areas of this country. Alas, if it had only been dioecious, it could have had its wayward reproductive habits curtailed – dioecious meaning that you have both male and female and one of each is required for reproduction.

The bangalow seed is freely dispersed by that great seed dispersal machine that we have in our kereru or native wood pigeon. Presumably the seed casings taste delicious and the resulting guano gives the falling seed a good start after aerial distribution. And it sets a simply astounding amount of viable seed. When our specimen finally set seed for the first time, Mark just left it, noting how very decorative were the lavender flowers and bright orange-red seed hanging in voluptuous bunches. Within months, we were picking out the rash of self sown seedlings everywhere. We left one in the coldest, wettest spot in our garden just to see how it would grow. This is an area where Mark plants his treasures which need a winter chill – the deepest red hellebores, the Chatham Island forget-me-nots, trilliums and Himalayan blue poppies. Nowithstanding the fact that it comes from sub-tropical Australia, the bangalow is very happy there too, thank you. It is a worry.

It is still perfectly legal to buy and sell bangalows or Archontophoenix cunninghamiana in this country. If the prices I have seen on the net are a fair guide, you will pay around $150 for a reasonable sized one, up to an eye-watering $1700 for one already six to eight metres tall. For that sort of money, if you are starting out, our recommendation is to look at alternative varieties which don’t show the potential to be a noxious weed. It really does matter. Besides, as Mark will testify with the advantage of new information, it is an awful lot easier to plant something that will not require you getting out the extension ladder to take off the flowers and fruit when it is mature. Our recommendation, based on personal experience, is the Queen Palm, Syagrus romanzoffiana.

While on the subject of palms, which are a fantastic family of plants, we would like to pay tribute to the work done over many years by Colin Verlaan at The Palm Farm. Some readers may not realise this nursery is local but Colin has done more than anybody to make a huge range of palms available in this country at more affordable prices. Most of the palms you buy could be traced back to The Palm Farm as the main supplier. Colin has announced he is retiring and we think it might be for real this time (I am sure he has tried to retire before). While he may not agree with our opinion of the bangalow and the trachycarpus, we would certainly find common ground in admiring many of the magnificent and interesting palms he has made available. Mark has been gently building a collection of palms from him over recent years, concentrating on varieties which we think should be hardy in our conditions. He hopes to get his new Palm Walk planted sooner rather than later and is pleased he started work on it while he could still source a fantastic range locally.