Tag Archives: Syagrus romanzoffiania

Way up high, where the birds fly

There is an entire ornithological condominium in the Queen palm at this time of the year. We know this because it is also the time of year when we retire to our Darby and Joan chairs on the front porch for the pre-dinner drink, As we sit gazing out to the garden, the flurry of feathered activity in that particular location is unmistakeable. There is a lot of coming and going.

The palm is Syagrus romanzoffiana, a fine South American variety.

Syagrus romanzoffiana

The nests are way up high – a good fifteen metres or more. Sadly, when fledglings fall or are pushed out of the nests, they can not survive that drop and we get a few fatalities lying around the base of the tree. But every year, we are surprised by just how many birds are occupying their nest apartments way up high. Mark has better identification skills than me so I will take his word for it that there are miners, starlings and sparrows nesting in amongst the fronds but we have not managed to work out how many of each there are. These are all birds that have been introduced to New Zealand.

The rent collector

But what is the kereru doing there, I asked him as I zoomed the camera in on the unmistakeable figure of our native wood pigeon.  Quick as a flash came the reply: “Collecting rent.”

Our Darby and Joan vantage point


Things that fall from above


Mark is feeling anxious. At this time of the year, the very large Abies procera ‘Glauca’ just out from our back door is dropping its cones. Very large cones they are, and prolific too. We know not to park the car beneath the tree lest the panel work get dented. However, one falling cone almost took Mark out yesterday, hitting the ground mere centimetres in front of where he was walking at the time. The tree was planted by his father who relocated it from the rockery in front of the house when it was clear that in fact it was neither very slow-growing nor a dwarf specimen as he had thought. Unfortunately, the site he chose is less than ideal, being close to the house and immediately beside the driveway.

Abies procera 'Glauca'

Abies procera ‘Glauca’

I doubt that should a cone land upon the head of a passing human, it would do major damage but it would not be a pleasant experience. And at the back of my mind, I recall a story some years ago of a poor woman in an Auckland park being killed by a falling seed cone – from a palm tree, I think. That is seriously bad luck.

img_3325While on the subject of falling plant material – and leaving aside our elderly Pinus radiata and eucalyptus which have been known to fall from time to time – the fronds from assorted palms can be fairly major. The photo is of a nikau palm, breaking off close to the ground so any damage is minimal. But the falling fronds from our Queen palms (Syagrus romanzoffiana) can wreak some havoc, breaking entire branches from the shrubs beneath them. When you look up, they don’t look worrying, but when they fall, they are often a good 4 metres in length and the curved pod of the leaf – still technically a petiole, I think – is as heavy and solid as wood. They could serious damage to a car beneath or indeed rip the spouting off the side of your house if you have it planted close by.

Queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana)

Queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana)

When it became all the rage to plant palm trees in Auckland in the 1990s, we couldn’t help but think that many folk did not realise how large they can grow and how much damage mature falling fronds can then cause.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and as gardeners, we tend to make our big planting mistakes early in our years. These can certainly come back to haunt us, or indeed subsequent property owners, many years down the track. At least our Queen palms are in locations where falling fronds are not a huge issue but we have learned not to plant any special trees or shrubs beneath them. The alternative is to only grow plants up to 2 or 3 metres in height and that simply would not do at all for us.

Many Abies procera cones

Many Abies procera cones

Plant Collector: Syagrus romanzoffiana

The towering Queen Palm, or Syagrus romanzoffiana growing in coastal Taranaki

The towering Queen Palm, or Syragus romanzoffiana growing in coastal Taranaki

I asked Mark how tall he thought our queen palms are. Mentally I was stacking 2 metre men on top of each other which is how I estimate tree heights. “About eighty feet,” Mark replied, “to the top of the crown.” I leave it in imperial feet because it sounds more impressive than 25 metres. They are tall, these handsome palms, and we have three of them. All were planted in the late 1950s by Felix Jury, from seed given to him by one of the Australian botanic gardens. Not that they are an Australian native. These are South American palms, coming from that mid band where Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia meet.

The single trunks are tall and slender and the impressive top knot houses an entire condominium of nesting birds. In spring time, there are often small, lightly feathered corpses at the base because fledglings are not going to survive a fall of that magnitude. It is mostly sparrows with the occasional starling. We often sit in a spot which looks out to one palm and the amount of comings and goings are prodigious.

I read advice on line that said: “the fronds die early and must be pruned to keep the tree visually pleasing”. No, we do not get the extension ladder out to groom our queen palms. Fronds do indeed die but they detach themselves in time and crash to the ground. As the sheaf of the frond is quite substantial, you don’t want special plants beneath and you certainly wouldn’t want one of these beside a building or near the car.

S. romanzoffiana is a suitable substitute for the common bangalow palm. While there are reported incidents of it escaping into the more tropical wilds of Australia, it has nowhere near the weed potential of the bangalow and we have never heard of it being a problem in NZ.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.