Bismarck Palm



COMMAND PERFORMANCE: If you really want a tree in your garden thatís going to take over and dominate, the Bismarck may be just what you are looking for.

Letting the Germans occupy your garden

Germans. Youíve 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 Germany.

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 mature specimens.

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 sharp teeth.

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 banana.

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 adjacent structures.

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 garden.

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 genus.

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.



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