International Palm Society LogoNorthern Limit of Palms in North America: Trachycarpus in Canada

Excerpt reprinted with permission from the April 1994 issue of Principes,
Journal of the International Palm Society

1994 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved

NICK PARKER, North Delta, BC, Canada

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 private gardens.

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 31 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 - 7 to - 12 C (10 to 20 F). Away from the coastline temperatures on the coldest winter nights will occasionally drop below - 12 C (0 F). The coldest temperature ever recorded in Vancouver was - 18 C (0 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.

This excerpt is approximately half of the article that originally appeared in the April 1994 issue of Principes.  Several photos in black and white accompany the article.  Back issues are available through our online shopping cart while supplies last.

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