|The growth range of cultivated Trachycarpus fortunei has been creeping northward along
the Pacific coast for decades and has now reached British Columbia on Canada's west coast.
Greater Vancouver and southern Vancouver Island are seeing a dramatic increase in the use
of the Chinese windmill palm in both private gardens and commercial landscaping. The rise
in popularity and profile of the humble windmill palm is largely the result of efforts of
dedicated individuals who have been quietly planting palms in private gardens for years
and not so quietly promoting the notion that palms will actually grow in Canada adding a
wonderful, exotic touch to west coast gardens. People in this part of the country take
their gardening seriously. They are proud, even smug about the range and variety of plants
and flowers that will grow here (and not in Toronto). Show them a 20 ft fan palm that will
thrive with little winter care, and the appeal is irresistible.
It wasn't always this
way. Any palms that were planted before the 1960s have long since fallen to the cold or
the contractor's bulldozer. In Bremerton, Washington, 100 miles south of the border, the
Taft St. palm was planted in 1939. It is regarded as one of the earliest plantings in the
Seattle area and is now more than 30 ft high, probably the tallest palm north of
California. Some of the earliest T fortunei in British Columbia were planted in Beacon
Hill Park in Victoria on Vancouver Island in the 1950s. The original trees are gone now,
replaced with new ones. In Vancouver, a palm was planted in the zoo area of Stanley Park
in 1967. The tallest palm on the British Columbian mainland was planted on Rumble St. in
Burnaby in 1968. It is now 25 ft tall towering over an adjacent home (Fig. 1). Beyond
these known plantings, however, there is very little historical evidence of interest in
cultivating palms. Things began to change when a young Swiss landscaper named Gerard Pury
immigrated to Canada and took up residence in Vancouver. Gerard came from Lugano, an area
of Switzerland well known for the postcard windmill palms growing beside Lake Maggiore.
Gerard felt confident palms would do well in Vancouver's similar climate. As a landscaper
he had a unique opportunity to experiment in gardens around town (with or without the
owner's blessing). As his landscaping business became more successful, his palms grew more
impressive and were planted in increasingly more influential locations. In 1966 he planted
a palm at his present address on Manitoba Street. Today seeds from this fecund tree
produce noticeably hardier plants than the standard 5- and 10-gallon plants imported from
California and sold in garden nurseries.
The Palm Society was established in Vancouver in 1984 by Richard Woo and a half dozen
palm enthusiasts. The Society has grown steadily to become The Pacific Northwest Palm
& Exotic Plant Society, a chapter of the International Palm Society, with about 100
members in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. Richard and Rudi Pinkowski, another
stalwart, continue tirelessly to promote the use and enjoyment of palms in public and
The southwestern corner of Canada is the mildest part of a very cold country. This is
the banana belt of the nation, the southern California of Canada. Thousands of people move
here each year to live or retire, Canadians from other parts of Canada escaping winter's
icy grip, and immigrants from all over the world for the peace and safety that Canada
offers. Two-thirds of British Columbia's 31½ million people now crowd themselves into the
southwest corner of the province.
Coastal British Columbia is USDA zone 8, and will periodically experience overnight
winter temperatures of - 7º to - 12º C (10º to 20º F). Away from the coastline
temperatures on the coldest winter nights will occasionally drop below - 12º C (0º F).
The coldest temperature ever recorded in Vancouver was - 18º C (0º F) on January 15,
1950 and again on December 29, 1968. Rainfall is approximately 50 inches annually. Trachycarpus
fortunei is the only species that has proven hardy for this climate with its cool
summers and mild, damp winters. Mature, acclimatized trees are not severely damaged by
winter frosts but younger plants and seedlings usually require some form of protective
covering from November through February. Even with protection the survival rate is only
about 50-70% for young or newly planted trees that have not been hardened.