1 May 2004
In May 1996, the Palm Society of Southern California held a meeting in San Clemente where we visited four wonderful gardens then proceeded to our palm auction at the Community Center near the pier. New to the Society, I was not sure what kind of palm to buy. I had much to learn.
I was familiar with the Ravenea rivularis, the very inexpensive and too-green palm found in supermarkets that would immediately fry upon exposure to inland sun. There were larger, acclimated specimens in our various parks but they were dismally ragged palms, with tattered brown leaves and scarred trunks. I kept hearing two descriptive versions of this palm: Ira Broome, it’s “Majestic” and Gary Wood, turns a “sickly yellow color” (see The Palm Journal, No. 117, July 1994). Still and then I wanted to take home a palm from Madagascar.
Two years later I visited Phil Morgan at his Leucadia home, a stone’s throw from the weather-moderating ocean. There I witnessed a most majestic palm, his Ravenea rivularis. Well, a few years have gone by--I’ve learned a bit more and now I finally get it. This palm is close to its heaven under Phil’s stead. The temperature never goes below 36 degrees F; there is dappled light streaking though his overhead canopy to play on the leaves; the wind is moist, not dry, and it is broken by the other palms in his garden; it is planted on a mound so the drainage is excellent; and finally, fertilizer and water are never denied. Yes, Ira was right. It can be quite “Majestic”.
But wait; if you don’t have these conditions then Gary is right. Most of those ideal conditions can be created but when it turns cold and when the air becomes dry, what are you going to do?
At that palm sale I saw a Ravanea madagascariensis var. monticola. The grower told me that this was, indeed, a special Ravenea but no details other than that. I paid $60. for this 5 gallon palm, about twice the going rate for most others.
This palm was planted within a 1 foot high, five foot diameter brick ring where the former owners of our home had placed their post lamp. I simply pulled out the lamp and then popped in this palm—I didn’t prepare the soil in any way. Over the years it has become apparent to me that this palm loves this location where the water is captured and must flow down the walls of this brick ring before it can flow away. In fact, during the hot summer months I periodically hose-fill this ring to at least 6 inches, which drains away in about 2 hours. If I watered it less, it wouldn’t mind, it would simply slow down.
This Ravenea has leaves that emerge from the petiole similar to the glauca, moorei and rivularis but the monticola is quite close to 90 degrees (Dransfield/Beentje have a term they use, ‘porrect’). Perhaps the most spectacular feature this palm has is the soft, gray tomentum covering the petioles—you simply must touch it! The new, emerging spike that splits into several future petioles is also a thrilling sight. The leaves are deep green, never yellow, and are thicker than the glauca. Over a harsh winter with drying winds, the outer leaves will tatter but not to the extent of the rivularis. In April I cut one round of the outer petioles away leaving nearly perfect leaves for the rest of the year. I put this palm 2nd in ranking to all my other palms and Louise rates it 1st. Many of our visitors pick this as their favorite palm then are quite disappointed when they later learn they cannot obtain one.
I believe the largest monticola resides in Louie Hooper’s garden. His palm has begun to seed—I shudder to think of how many more years I must wait until my monticola flowers (Ravenea’s are dioecious).
So, if you’re looking for a spectacular palm from Madagascar, with a name so long that you can blow your visitor’s socks off, and you’d like to avoid a struggle generally associated with Dypsis, then find a monticola. It will become the focal point of your garden.
Ravenea madagascariensis var. monticola