The uniqueness of the Kentia palm begins with where it grows wild. Lord Howe Island, a tiny dot in the ocean between Australia and New Zealand, is only seven miles long and 3 1/2 miles wide, yet Lord Howe Island is the exclusive habitat of the Kentia or paradise palm, which is the most popular palm for interior landscaping throughout the world. To this day, the export of Kentia palm seeds is a primary source of income for the inhabitants of Lord Howe Island.
Ruminations on the Kentia palm (Howea Forsterana) were set in motion by a recent encounter with this wonderful tree in a very narrow and shady alcove in an apartment complex in Studio City. I had recently been told that the Kentia requires less light than any other palm. I had assumed that this information was useful only in an indoor context and that Kentias would thus be suitable companions for cast iron plants (Aspidistra elatior), Janet Craig dracaenas, Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema commutatum), and other house plants that grow well in low-light situations.
In the Valley, Kentias are nearly always used indoors but, as they have proved in Studio City, protected locations outdoors will be hospitable to them as well. It should be noted that Studio City does not get as cold in the winter as Woodland Hills or Palmdale and more risk would be attached to planting Kentias outdoors in these areas.
The idea of planting tropicals in places where, according to accepted wisdom, they should not be planted is helpful in defining the personality of the passionate and devoted gardener who, I have learned over the years, is an adventurous and rebellious sort. If you are a passionate gardener, the knowledge that a certain plant species has never been grown in your area will make you that much more determined to grow it.
In fact, chronic bad weather and passionate gardening seem to go hand in hand. In climates where the skies are overcast most of the year and the weather is often rainy and cold, in places such as England and Japan, garden design and the horticultural arts inevitably find their fullest expression.
Jack Bairamian, a reader from the Verdugo Woodlands area of Glendale, is well-qualified to represent passionate gardeners. He has turned his hillside yard into a tropical paradise, cultivating many species that are rarely seen in our area.
“I have several gingers in my yard,” writes Bairamian, “and they are growing prolifically. I have the pink and red cone gingers and the Kahili ginger, and I look forward to seeing them bloom in the summer. I also have a few heliconias in my yard and they are just beautiful. Another plant I like is the Protea. This plant is ideal for this area’s dry climate. it grows very easily and can go weeks without water.”
All of the above tropicals have large, showy flowers but, except for the comparatively hardy Kahili ginger (Hedychium species), are generally avoided by Valley gardeners on account of their susceptibility to frost damage. Bairamian believes that his microclimate has contributed to his success with tropicals. “I live very close to a mountain shielded by a lot of eucalyptus trees,” he explains. “Most of my yard is under the shade of these trees. The shielding canopy of these trees traps in some of the warmth at night and prevents frost from forming on very cold nights.”
Bairamian also has a collection of exotic trees including majesty palm, areca palm, royal palm, Christmas palm, Sabal palmetto and royal poinciana. The royal poinciana or flamboyant (Delonix regia) is familiar to anyone who has visited the tropics. It has feathery, dark green leaves and brilliant scarlet flowers.
If you were thinking that only ornamental trees and flowers could be cultivated in such a microclimate, think again. Bairamian is growing a coconut palm (Cocus nucifera), albeit with plenty of cold protection, as well as mango, lychee, jackfruit, passionfruit and pineapple.
Photo credit: Robert Whyte www.arachne.org.au / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND