1 Jan 1997
Living with Livistonas
This is a special message to all new members of the PSSC….
If you don’t know where to start, start living with Livistonas. Take it from me, you need to have a string of successes in order to feel good about yourself with palms. It’s such a bummer when they die and don’t tell you why they were unhappy. Starting with the Livistona is a good way to begin your acquaintance in palm growing. The Livistona genus, largely a native of Australia, enjoys a climate similar to ours. Of course, you can start with the common Queen and have good luck, but surely you want something a little more exotic. Besides the Brahea, the Mexican native, I cannot think of a larger genus that is as robust and more at home in Southern California’s climate.
When I started, I visited Gary Wood’s South Coast Palms, and found more Livistonas than anywhere. I marveled at the umbrella-shaped top of his L. rigida (possibly a L. mariae or cross with another), at the corner of his home, in line with his driveway. Mesmerizing! Those droopy leaves were truly special.
Let’s start with the difficult ones, the ones that are suitable only for coastal areas, greenhouses or in very protected areas. L. jenkinsiana is probably the most striking Livistona you can have, with a super-large orbicular leaf that is a pale green; your visitors will gravitate to this plant and do plenty of oohs and ahhs. L. robinsoniana and rotundifolia are similar. But once our dry winters pull the moisture out of their leaves, they go bye-bye. Give up on these.
Next, the L. mariae comes from a dry area so be sure to place this on a sloping hill or, if you must plant in a flat area, mound the dirt about 18 inches higher than the area. Leland Lai’s garden, the Jardin Topagonia, which our society visited November 2001, makes extensive use of mounding for cycads and some palms for the very same reason, and this is smart: Don’t let those roots sit in cold water during the winter.
The L. australis is an amazingly strong palm when mature, with its massive head of leaves and spectacular crosshatched leaf base trunk. But what I have found is the term “Gradual Sun” applied in our Palms of Southern California pamphlet is entirely appropriate. This palm simply doesn’t like strong inland sun until it is a lot larger than 5 gallon, and more like it, only when it is in the ground. Fool around with a 5 gallon or less, still in its pot, in the sun and you’ll get burned leaves that will really set it back. Find an open shade tree that offers dappled sun, put this baby there, and it will remain sumptuous green and grow well in its pot. My 15 gallon, purchased May 1999 at the Quail Sale and planted immediately, didn’t “hook up” and start to push new leaves until late last year, so don’t be disappointed if yours sulks for a while.
While we’re at it, the L. chinensis, the Chinese Fountain palm (looks just like a water fountain making a leaflike pattern), is highly variable with regard to tolerance of sun. I’ve known people who swear that their chinensis is sun hardy but mine, located on the east side of our house which never sees direct sun past 12 noon, always burns the first hot day in April, setting it back for the entire summer. In fact, mine had been grown in the shade for 9 years by Joe Snyder when I acquired it in 1996, so I suspect that it has “learned” to be comfortable with shade, and that’s simply the way it is. It is still infuriatingly knee-high! Yet I planted a 1 gallon L. sp. ‘Tonga’ (looks exactly like a chinensis) in 1997 in our raspberry patch which provided some initial canopy, but it quickly shot above and is now 6 feet tall and very vibrant! Maybe this is an example of throwing it in the ground as soon as possible with exposure to sun limited by the palm’s growth, i.e., let it grow INTO the sun at its own rate. Well, that’s my experience and you are welcome to learn from my hard lesson.
Acclimation of sun-loving palms seems like an oxymoron but this genus definitely wants a gradual transition. Three more examples, please. I got a 5 gallon L. drudei from Dennis O’Malley in La Mesa in May 1996, put it straight out and it perished by September; failure probably due to poor acclimation to sun (I was really dumb in 1996). I traded Mike Masterson in Escondido for a humongous 10 year-old L. saribus; had to dig it up and put it immediately into the ground at my home in January 1999. I could see it go brown each day so I went wild spraying it with anti-transpirant. Like a big, disabled plane in the sky, it started spiraling down until it crashed; failure probably due to cold roots that were cut and “bleeding”. With hindsight, I should have trenched it, and maybe it is better to transplant in warmer weather. Man, that was very upsetting to me because that palm had 6 foot long and 3 foot wide leaves. Lastly, I got a L. benthamii, about 8 years old, with 2 foot of tapered trunk from Karel Havlicek in Dana Point (a very overcast coastal area). I took all the proper steps of trenching the palm, backfilling with sand, waiting 3 months or more, then removing and immediately planting it at my home. I did not put a piece of shadecloth over it; hey, this is a sun-loving plant that is 8 years old! Do not pass, do not collect, go to jail. All the leaves browned in 2 days. I saw a small green sliver of a new spike, prayed, did an Indian dance, then cried my eyes out when that spike pulled out.
Lesson here: Trench before transplanting, be careful of the bottom roots that do not benefit from trenching, transplant in warm weather, use Don Hodel’s suggestion of putting a 2’ x 2’ patch of 50% shadecloth over the newly transplanted palm and allow the new, unopened spike to push through a small hole cut in the center and allow that spike to fully open at its own rate.
Ok, enough of the sad stories. Now, the good stuff. I transplanted a 8 year old L. hohenbaerghina from Dana Point to my home (as benthamii above) successfully. Besides proper trenching, all I did for that plant was “tie up its hair” (fold bottom leaves up, tie with string to shroud the spike) for 3 months. It is perfect and glorious. I have a wonderful L. saribus grown from a 5 gallon size, planted the spring of 2000, struggled for a while, now about waist high, with large, black teeth and dark green/black petioles. Walt Frey gave me a 1 gallon L. sp. “Blackdownsii” in January 1998. I have kept it in my 50% shadehouse since then because I can’t figure out where to put it on my grounds. It is exactly the same size now as then, yet very healthy. So this is a palm that demands heat, and stops growing when it is in shade. Hmmm.
Last story, I bought a 5 gallon L. decipiens, the Ribbon Fan palm, from Gary Wood in March 1995. For the first few years, I thought it was mighty slow. But the magic point is about 6-7 years, then the growth goes into overdrive. This is possibly the most majestic palm I have. Fabulous droopy, finely divided leaves, hence the name Ribbon, that get more leathery each year, with a hint of bronze in the green. No other palm has such distinctive paper wound into the leaf bases. The crosshatch is special and I hope it stays on forever. This is one of the first palms I show my visitors and the reaction is always the same. People who previously had zero appreciation for palms see this palm, notice the special features, then start TELLING ME what they are observing! Now that makes it all worthwhile. Where do you start? Start with the Livistona.
Livistona chinensis tonga