18 Nov 2000
The second day of fall in southern California would be considered summer to the rest of the world. On that day of this year, the members and guests of PSSC experienced a wonderful summer day in Oxnard, California at the commercial growing site of Keeline-Wilcox, owned and operated by Sarah and her brother Rick Wilcox. They are masters in growing the Kentia, the Howea forsteriana, sometimes referred to as the Paradise Palm, from Lord Howe Islands. Like McDonald’s, they have long ago given up trying to keep count of the product they have sold (millions, to be sure).
A most unusual Palm Meeting for most of us younger members, a visit to a truly large scale commercial nursery. It dazzled even long time members and experienced growers to see the sheer magnitude of this operation. When you serve the masses, you have to be tireless. People demand and expect the highest quality and such is the case for this nursery. Sarah noted that they have to be extremely careful that a prized H. forsteriana var. rubra (a gorgeous Kentia with reddish petioles) not be included in any normal shipment for their customers will call immediately believing this to be a sick plant! These people know what they want, they want the deep green Kentias, which K-W has made a standard in the industry. Sarah confided to us that wherever their family and employees travel, they cannot help but approach all fine Kentias on display looking for their identifying pot which has a characteristic square lip plus other hidden clues. They are rightfully proud of their craft.
We anxiously lined up to tour their operation. Most of us have grown palms but nevertheless asked her pointed questions, for we were as green with envy as those palms. Here is Sarah Wilcox’s recipe.
Perfectly fresh seeds, at a quantity of (only) 200,000 from worldly locations, planted beneath the soil surface, end-to-end, in a special, maximum density configuration. The "community pot" is a massive table, and there are many of these, with soil 6 inches or so deep, placed in a bright, humid room with skylight (no wonder the seeds want to pop, I could hardly wait to get out of that hot room myself). Then you must hang out for 6 to 9 months typically waiting for these seeds to germinate. But be prepared to sort through the unresponsive seeds and place them into another soil bed for another 9 months. This is but one of the many "diminishing return" decisions one must make, that is, at what point does one give up because further time and expense might not be worth it? Hmm, this bunch of seeds just might pop next week or next month or next year……aw, I feel I’m getting old.
Vibrant seedlings placed into 2.5 inch clay pots, then the pots are placed above ground beneath a shaded covering. Why clay pots? a)Permeability, permitting nutrients and water to flow to the plant, and allowing it to "breathe" (air). Note: Wilcox did an interesting study using narrow, long slitted liners in which it appeared the penetration of air improved their growth. b)Constraint of the root system, creating a plant that has the beautiful arching, but not sprawled, petioles. After about 18 months, these plants are moved to a 4 inch clay pot, then placed into the ground (pot-planted). You may have seen a Keeline-Wilcox Kentia in hotels, offices and shopping malls across the nation. This vertical "look" is undeniably attractive, after you see one you’ll want only a K-W.
Lathe slats, covered with about 63% shadecloth provide approximately 30% light arriving at the plant. This results in excellent air movement, with maximum light arriving at the leaf’s surface with no burn. Why is that? Well, the beam of light penetrates the lathe openings, striking the plant surface, but the sun is also making an arc in the sky thus the strong light "moves" on the surface and does not tarry long enough to burn.
Three years to get up to the first 2 feet, then roughly a foot per year thereafter. You can put a child through 12 years of schooling before a Keeline-Wilcox specimen is ready to sell.
A large expense of their operation is the preparation for shipment—trimming, meticulously cleaning each leaf, even cleaning the pot, labeling and bagging and loading onto their truck. Remember, it must arrive in perfect condition.
This recipe, appearing quite simple, is what it takes to grow spectacular Kentias. Now, for you who honestly think you could do this, you must buy 42 acres of premium, perhaps uniquely situated southern California land, build giant lathe houses to cover the entire crop, start networking all over the world, then devote three or more generations of your family perfecting your operation. But in the end, it is doubtful you will match the quality of Keeline-Wilcox.
This business is labor intensive, still being done the old-fashioned way, just like their grandfather did. Their family worked and worked, finally mastering this craft in the 1920’s and it is being practiced in the same manner today. Some things don’t change because they simply don’t need to change.