Palm Beach

By Jennifer Gay

Vai, on the northeastern coast of Crete, is home to the last remaining palm grove in Europe. Once threatened by agricultural activities, the forest is nowreceiving the protection it deserves

THERE are only two palms native to Europe. One of them is the Dwarf Fan Palm, Chamaerops humilis (Hamiropas, Finikas Nanos) which is found growing along the seaboard of the Iberian peninsula. The other is the Vai Palm or Cretan Palm (Phoenix theophrastii), once widespread in Crete and the southern Peloponnese but now reduced to a handful of locations in Crete, the Aegean and southwest Turkey. The most famous of these sites is Vai in northeastern Crete, where this beautiful tree forms a proper palm grove, growing along a

Vai Palms
narrow valley close to the sea, extending some distance along the beach. Until the 50s a substantial palm forest remained of some 300 hectares (3,000 stremmata) but in 1957 extensive land reclamation took place and most of the forest was destroyed. A paltry 16 hectares was all that remained. The beach was discovered by hippies in the 70s and developed into a longterm campers' paradise in the 80s. Unfortunately, a serious rubbish problem ensued until eventually the Vai Palm forest was declared a protected area, camping was forbidden and the beach was fenced, with entrance only permitted during daylight hours.

An EU LIFE project was set up to try and reverse the sad decline and increase the size of this unique forest - the only palm forest, after all, in Europe. Until a few years ago the forest remained hemmed in by agricultural activities which limited its natural regeneration. The Municipality of Itanos, the Greek Biotope and Wetland Centre, the local Toplou Monastery and the Forestry Directorate of Lasithi combined forces to persuade local stakeholders to swap about 9 hectares of land bordering the forest for agricultural plots further away. The monastery's involvement was pivotal because it donated the land next to the forest for replanting and land exchange so that over time the forest could be extended.

The Toplou Monastery used to own most of the 26 hectares which make up the NE peninsula of Crete on which the Vai Palm forest is situated. Several years ago the monastery sold the leasehold to the Minoan Group (formerly Loyalward), which recently got the go-ahead to develop five holiday villages and three golf courses on the peninsula. Minoan Group say they are committed to safeguarding and extending the palm forest in conjunction with other interested parties.

The EU project has so far almost doubled the area of palm trees from 16 hectares to 32 hectares. The young palm trees have a very slow growth rate - the trunk only becomes visible above ground after three of four years, thus vigilance with weeding is necessary to give the palms their best chance. The palms were regularly irrigated during the early years but were gradually weaned off this support to encourage the roots to look for their own water underground, and develop drought resistance.

It was only in 1967 that the Swiss botanist Werner Greuter recognised Phoenix theophrasti as a separate species from the Date Palm, Phoenix dactylifera, and until now there is debate as to whether it should be classified as a subspecies of the Date Palm. It seems only natural that Greuter should have chosen to name the Cretan Palm after the botanist Theophrastus (372-287BC), who mentions it several times in On Natural History. It should also not be confused with the widely planted Canary Island Palm (Phoenix canariensis). Though all three frequently hybridise, several features distinguish the true species P theophrasti from both of these other species. Cretan Palm is a smaller palm with slender stems rarely reaching above 10 metres (the Date Palm may reach a towering 30 metres while Canary Palm is often 20m) and its leaves are more glaucous than either Canary Island Palm or Date Palm; the tips of the leaflets are also very sharp, and it is not advisable to plant it where people may brush past. It has also has an attractive tendency to sucker, creating magnificent multi-stemmed trunks, though one single parent stem usually dominates. The ripe fruit is dark brown and considered too small and fibrous to be worth eating, quite unlike the succulent fruits of the Date Palm - but locals do apparently partake sometimes.

The Vai Palm surely shares an ancestry with the Canary Palm, probably originating from a species that grew in the former tropical and subtropical tertiary forests of southern Europe about 20 million years ago. It would seem that successive glaciation contracted the population to its present few sites in the warmest parts of Crete and the southeast Aegean.

All the palms are salt- and wind-tolerant - making them good coastal plants. However, they are vulnerable to cold - temper-atures below -5 degrees Celsius will cause significant damage. Always

Canary Island Palms

give them good drainage and plenty of sun. Unlike most plants, the best time to transplant them is early summer - they need plenty of warmth to encour-age new root growth.

Flowering now

Tree Spurge

I SAW a west-facing coastal hillside on mainland Greece absolutely covered in Tree Spurge (Euphorbia dendroides, Dendroflomos), the limey-green flowers fresh and crisply acidic against

blue skies. February is early for Tree Spurge to flower (like just about everything else this year), usually blooming in March and April. A shrub of around 2-3 metres, it generally grows up to about 400 metres above sea level. Totally drought-resistant, it is summer deciduous, the leaves dropping to reveal an interesting, rather rounded branch structure. The leaves colour up beautifully in early summer, in oranges, reds and purple, reminiscent of a mini autumn display. Quite a mystery that this plant has not been adopted by the nursery trade, it is easily grown in well-drained soil.

Gardener's query

LAST SPRING I was given a gardenia in full flower. I put it out on my balcony in semi-shade, kept it moist and fed it periodically with a liquid feed suitale for gardenias and azaleas. It continued to produce new flowers but they only lasted a few days before they went brown and some of the buds fell off without opening at all. It had stopped flowering completely by September.

It has been outside all winter in a sheltered but sunny position and has produced a lot of new growth - in fact, it has almost doubled in size and I have spotted one or two flower buds developing. How should it be placed with regard to sun/shade? The new growths are quite "leggy" and it no longer has the original compact shape - should it be pruned or cut back in any way and would this encourage flowering? It is still in its original, good-sized pot and standing inside a terracotta pot with drain holes, to shade the roots and stop it toppling over. Should it be repotted and if so, what do I ask for (in Greek, please!) at the nursery.

Gardenias have a reputation for being difficult. They originate from warm, humid tropical areas and need high humidity to thrive. They also need acidic but fertile soils (pH 5-6), humus-rich, with very good drainage, moist but never soggy. Equally, never let the soil dry out. Temperature is also critical to blooming - flower buds will have trouble forming if day temperatures are above 21 degrees Celsius, or night temperatures are above 19 degrees Celsius. Your rapid flower browning/bud drop may have been due to high temperatures, under-watering, over-watering (less likely) or low humidity.

Water from the bottom and dispose of any water left standing in the saucer after the compost has absorbed what it needs. Daily misting during summer helps (not in brilliant light).

Gardenias need light shade in summer, though during winter they can cope with a sunnier position (not direct sunlight). They can be pruned back, but only when dormant. If you want to make the plant bushier just pinch out the growing tips early in the growing season - this usually does promote better blooming the following year. It might be a little late to pinch out this year if you are already getting flower buds, though if the growth is very leggy, I'd pinch out selectively.

Gardenias don't especially like to be pot-bound and it is advisable to pot them on or at least top-dress in late winter. Ericaceous compost should be used - there does not seem to be a Greek translation - but ask for compost for rhododendrons and azaleas. Water with soft water if possible and apply a liquid fertiliser (for azaleas, rhododendrons etc) every four weeks in growing season.

If you have a gardening question for Jennifer Gay, send it to

(Posting date 26 March 2007)

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