Even in the middle of Winter, a gardener has work to do. Even when it’s dark and wet and many of us are sitting by the fire, gardeners are working – cutting back, potting, replanting, tidying, painting… Even though the doors of the Fota Frameyard are closed until March, Bernard and Ian are busy, along with the volunteers, tending the gardens and getting ready for the new season of visitors.
This week Bernard moved a large plant from Glasshouse No. 5 to one of the beds in the Frameyard. It is a Phoenix canariensis (Canary date palm). This was planted around 5 years ago in the Glasshouse by Fionola Reid, Garden Designer, when she was working on the restoration of the Frameyard. Now it has become too big for the glasshouse and needs to be moved outside. So it’s leaving home!
Our palm had been firmly staked at the base, which is done to help the roots to settle. Given the gale-force winds of last week, this was a good thing, as it might have been blown over completely or simply discouraged from rooting at all.. According to www.palms.org “P canariensis has an extensive root system, which allows these palms to explore the surrounding earth to find subterranean water even at long distances” . While a water supply won’t be a problem for the plant, (this is Ireland!) the temperature might be, so it has been wrapped up to protect it from frost and will probably remain wrapped up until well into March.
The Phoenix canariensis is a large, solitary palm with a stout trunk that supports pinnate leaves, around 6m long, with 80 to 100 leaflets on either side of the leaf. It grows to around 20m, sometimes higher in suitable climates. It is a member of the palm family Arecaceae and is native to the Canary Islands.
On the smaller island of La Gomera, the tree’s sap is used to make guarapo –palm honey. Compared to the other Canary Islands where this palm is diminishing, La Gomera has remained largely unspoiled by tourism and the Phoenix canariensis is flourishing there. It is usually cultivated in these sub-tropical climates but it is an adaptable palm and can withstand temperatures down to -10c.
Fota is home to many plants of sub-tropical nature and another specimen of the Phoenix caraniensis is growing happily behind the Orangery on the grounds of the Arbouritium. This bodes well for our newly transplanted palm. We wish it well and look forward to seeing it fully established in its new bed!
Meanwhile in the orchard, Ian is busy pruning the apple trees and the large, old fig tree there. As with the other trees in the orchard, this tree’s exact age is hard to determine but it’s estimated to be around 100 years old. Fig trees (Ficus carica) are usually planted against a wall and there’s a good reason for this. It’s to restrict the roots.
When planting a fig, many gardeners, as well as planting against a wall, would surround the other sides of the hole with slate or concrete slabs to confine them. Or the fig can be planted in a sunken container. This forces the plant’s energy into the production of fruit.
In Mediterranean areas fig trees will produce several fruit crops. But in Ireland, most fig trees produce one crop of edible figs in summer. Two to three crops are borne on each tree over the course of a year but in our cool climate only one of these – the set of fruits ready for picking in late summer – will ever develop to maturity. The figs we harvest for eating in the summer will have been formed the previous year, overwintering in the leaf axils towards the tips of young shoots, to swell for a summer harvest. By September next year’s crop will have been initiated and the embryo fruits will be anything up to the size of grapes. Any fruitlets larger than this should be removed, as they will be highly unlikely to survive the winter and will only rot on the tree.
While we call a fig a fruit, it is really more of an inverted flower (a structure called the syconium) than fruit, with all its reproductive parts located inside.
A fascinating article in the New Yorker magazine last year provoked much discussion among the volunteers in relation to the “fig wasp”. Reassuringly, Ian says that most of the figs we grow in this country are self-pollinating and don’t require the services of the fig wasp. The most common fig we plant is called Brown Turkey. This story also gave rise to an interesting discussion one day between one of the volunteers and a visitor who was a vegetarian. Our visitor was just back from Greece where she spoke of all the sweet figs she had eaten, only to be told by a friend about the fig-wasp. Irish vegetarians can rest assured that their non-carnivore preferences are safe when they buy figs at Fota Frameyard.
Ian mentioned that last year some Jays visited the fig-tree on a regular basis. These are shy birds who love the woodland environment at Fota. This year there is no sign of them yet but a cheeky robin was around observing Ian’s work this week. No doubt, like all Robins, it was hoping for some ground disturbance from which it would benefit! But nobody would complain about having such a lovely work companion!