Crested Madagascar Palm

Crested Madagascar Palm

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Pachypodium lamerei f. cristata (Crested Madagascar Palm)

Pachypodium lamerei f. cristata (Crested Madagascar Palm) is a semi-deciduous, succulent-stemmed tree, up to 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, with a…

SERIES 25 Episode 24

Jerry meets a gardener with an impressive collection of cacti and succulents

"Merv Whitehouse is a succulent and cactus grower par excellence - which is just as well because he's going to be part of Open Gardens Australia. He's dedicated a quarter of his 4000 square metre block in suburban Ipswich to these quirky characters of the plant world," says Jerry.

"From the time I was at University I was a little bit interested in them," Merv says. "I did a botany degree, but ended up working as a soil chemist, so I'm basically a frustrated botanist! I went to the Botanical Gardens one weekend and the Cactus and Succulent Society were having a show. From that point on, I've been interested in collecting as many as I could."

He shows Jerry the rocky makeup of his garden. "This natural rock outcrop was the reason that I bought the block back in 1970, because there's very shallow soil here and it drains extremely well. It's absolutely ideal for cactus and succulent growth."

For his potted plants, he uses an ingredient that's not terribly common these days - fly ash. "There are two reasons for using it," he says. "Firstly, it enables the mix to be re-wet a lot faster when you dry it out between watering. The second reason is that it gives structure to the mix so that when the organic matter starts to decompose, the mix will retain its structure."

Merv's Cacti and Succulent Potting Mix Recipe

  • 2 parts premium potting mix
  • 1 part fly ash* (a fine grey powder of glassy particles, a by-product of coal-fired power stations - easy to obtain in Ipswich) - can replace with perlite or scoria
  • 5 grams to the litre of slow-release fertiliser
  • enough water to keep down the dust

* Merv has since advised the ash he uses is referred to as 'boiler ash.' Fly ash is a different product.

He uses another type of rocky material for mulching. "We use a gravel mulch. That enables us to water a little bit less often and it also keeps the base of the plant a little bit drier and stops rot from setting in."

Merv has thousands of plants and over 1000 different species - roughly half of which are in the garden and half in greenhouses. Jerry has a question about one of Merv's larger collections. "It's a long time since I've seen so many of these Pachypodiums (Madagascar Palm, Pachypodium lamerei)," says Jerry. "They're really popular, but people like myself always seem to kill them. What's the trick to keeping them alive?"

"There's really no trick, you just have to grow them somewhere where the roots don't stay wet for too long - especially in winter when they're not growing actively."

One of Merv's Madagascar palms (Crested Madagascar Palm, Pachypodium lamerei f. cristata) has a particularly interesting form. "This was a single seedling that came up from a batch of about 1000 - and it's what we call a 'cristate' plant. Instead of having a growing point, it's got a growing sort of razor blade or fan. As it grows, it contorts like a brain. But it won't grow very tall." Most of the seedlings came from one of Merv's palms - now 25 years old.

Merv shows Jerry the covered area, which Jerry describes as an Aladdin's cave of treasures. "These are all Mammillaria bocasana (Powder-puff Cactus)," says Merv, showing off some conventionally fluffy examples of the species. "This is the normal form here. Then there's a spineless form which is called 'inermis', meaning 'spineless' (Spineless Mammillaria, Mammillaria bocasana var. inermis). There's another that's not only spineless, but is 'monstrose' as well - that means it's got growths all over it. We just call this one 'Fred' as the cultivar name (Monstrose Mammillaria, Mammillaria bocasana 'Fred')." Another cactus characteristic is this 'cephalium' (a colourful, woolly mass at the top of the cactus, which also supports flower buds) that always occurs on Melocactus (Melon Cactus, Melocactus violaceus)."

However, the rocky outdoor areas are also full of extraordinary plants. Jerry is particularly impressed with Merv's Echeveria 'Blue Curls', which he says fry in his garden. Merv recommend planting them in winter so that they have plenty of time to acclimatise before the hot summer comes.

One of Merv's favourites is the Elephant's Foot plant, Dioscorea elephantipes. "It's a 'caudiciform' (thick-stemmed) succulent. It's an above-ground yam. I also like the very colourful mesembs (ice plants or living stones) or Mesembryanthemums as they used to be called (now Pleiospilos sp.) and they are quite nice. I've got some of those in flower at the moment."

"There's also an area on one of the rockeries where there are a lot of self-seeded Parodia leninghausii (Golden-ball Cactus), which just shows exactly the way they grow in nature. They grow on cliff tops and self-seed along the cliff face," he says.

Merv says he doesn't mind the huge amount of work that goes into his collection. "You get the enjoyment of collecting them for the first part. I mean, if I find a plant that I haven't got, I have this urge to buy it so that I can see how it grows and also have a go at propagating it - so I enjoy that part of it. I don't know that I'd call myself an addict, although my wife definitely would - I'm sure about that!"

Madagascar Palm (Pachypodium lamerei)

Crested outdoor grown plant in southern California in April (leafless for about two months in late winter/early spring)

Hi I am Texas and have two differant madagascar palms, I am very interested in this crested palm, was it grafted or is it another breed I did not know about? I have one that is about 10ft and another about 4ft. My large one is about 18yrs old and has started blooming every summer. I have recently put it in the ground and hope that it will do well. Please let me know about any others that I may be interested in I here there is about 12 differant kind. The Botanical Gardens here told me that. Thanks

I cannot be sure, but these crests are often spontaneous, but grafting a crest is possible, too, though I do not see a graft line on my plant. however, crested plants seem to have a limited life span- at least the crest itself does.. mine has already found its limit, but prematurely perhaps thanks to its exposure to the elements (cold winters). Mine is an exceptionally large crest and the weight and size of it also made it more easy to rot. Plants without crests can live for many decades (and live for perhaps hundreds of years in Madagascar where they get 20'-30' tall).

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