got to love them, I suppose. I have to be very
careful here, as there are one or two Germans
around Phuket, Iím told, and I have the feeling
that they are probably a lot bigger than I am.
Far be it from me to revert to national
stereotypes, but we all know what Germans are
like, donít we? The men are a little on the
rotund side and love drinking beer while wearing
those leather shorts with braces. Every meal
consists of sauerkraut or bratwurst and beer,
and they have a propensity toward dodgy facial
hair. The women are icy Teutonic beauties with
blond hair and blue eyes. We canít really get
bent out of shape about any of that.
Germans despise inefficiency, love their
country, have never been late for anything and,
if I can say this without upsetting too many
people, would like Europe a lot more if only it
were a little more like Germany.
They speak amazing English and eat about five
meals a day. They donít know the meaning of the
word Witz (thatís ďjokeĒ in German, though not a
particularly common item of German vocabulary).
Why do they capitalize nouns, by the way?
They also have an incredible knack of claiming
pool beds at European holiday resorts by draping
their towels over them at 5 am. Actually, Iíve
even seen that here at Phuket hotels.
Thatís the stereotype, anyway, but deep down we
rather admire them. What would the automotive
world be like without German cars? German
takeovers are probably single-handedly
responsible for the prevention of the demise of
the British car industry. They got it organized.
Also in their defense, I learned something many
years ago about one trait of their character Ė
their absolute directness. I have a good friend
who was my neighbor in the UK and who happens to
be German. When any of the other neighbors threw
a party, they would politely ask if you were
free that night, or casually mention that they
were having a barbecue, leaving the attendance
decision entirely up to you.
Not Anje. Her approach was far more in keeping
with the language of her fatherland. Bearing in
mind that she was fluent in English, her idea of
an invitation was, ďI have a party on Saturday
night. You will come.Ē It wasnít a request; more
like a direct order. Thatís when I came to
realize that it wasnít arrogance or rudeness at
all Ė just a direct translation of German. Not
everyone understood that, unfortunately.
Regular readers of this column will know that
the links between the meaningless rant that
precedes the gardening bit are sometimes
tenuous, to say the least. This week I believe
that Iíve stretched the definition of ďtenuousĒ
to new heights. Just about the only gardening
reference I can think of that has anything to do
with Germans is the Bismarck palm, named after
Otto von Bismarck, a former chancellor of
Its official name is the Bismarckia nobilis, or
tarn-fah in Thai. Even though itís more
expensive than many of its contemporaries, itís
becoming a fairly common palm here in Phuket,
probably because of its distinguished looks.
The Bismarck palm dominates the scenery wherever
itís planted. Its solid, stout trunk and the
rather too-organized symmetry of the huge crown
makes it perfect for expensive hotels and
government buildings. The dramatic foliage that
appears to be almost silver amplifies the
effect. It grows a single trunk that retains old
leaf bases on young plants but becomes smooth on
This palm may reach a height of 15 to 18 meters
with a spread of about six meters or more. Even
younger versions of the palm that have yet to
form a trunk brandish full crowns of about 25
leaves with the maximum spread. The huge palmate
leaves are hard and kind of waxy and are up to
three meters across.
They are supported on two-meter stems that can
be 25 centimeters in diameter. The leaf bases
split where they attach to the trunk and the
leaf stems are armed with piranha-inspired small
The Bismarck palm is native to the island of
Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa.
Madagascar happens to be home to hundreds of
unique plant species including a few favorite
palms, such as the bottle palm and the
travelerís palm; a palm-like tree related to the
The Bismarck palm should be grown in full sun or
partial shade on well-drained soil. Itís the
ideal tree for someone whose idea of gardening
is to sit in the garden with a beer and watch,
as itís highly drought- and salt-tolerant. I
definitely count myself in that category. The
drinking beer thing rather than
drought-tolerant, that is. As is the case with a
number of palms, it canít be transplanted until
some form of trunk develops and is visible at
the base of the plant.
Because of its huge ultimate size, gardeners who
like to sound as if they know what theyíre
talking about will tell you that the Bismarck
palm is not recommended for small yards as it
dominates its space, dwarfing and obscuring
I say what the hell Ė if you really want a tree
in your garden thatís going to take over and
dominate, then fill your boots. Especially
something as impressive as this one Ė itís best
planted where it can serve as a focal point. If
you plant it against a backdrop of dark foliage,
it will stand out even more.
I think itís worth having simply because itís
different Ė not just another green thing in your
Single trees are excellent, but a row of
Bismarck Palms spaced five meters apart along
each side of an entry road or wide walkway can
create a dramatic impact. Thereís a row of young
Bismarck palms outside that new development with
the concrete elephant heads in the walls on Chao
Fa West Rd that look superb. Give them a few
years and theyíll be incredible.
For anyone who really cares about this kind of
thing, unlike so many other members of the plant
world, Bismarckia nobilis does not have any
immediate family; itís the only species in the
I rather suspect that the Bismarck palm has a
lot more in common with the Germans than just
its name. Itís the BMW of the plant world Ė it
does its job very efficiently with the minimum
of fuss in a very predictable way.
Just donít give it a pair of Lederhosen, or it
will be demanding draft weissbeer rather than
water. Thatís eine Witz, by the way.