Photographs: Charles Francis
Clarence and Bartholomew began life in Mediterranean sunshine — but they have adapted well to their new home in the windswept far west of Cornwall. The two spectacular Butea capitata specimens are among an impressive range of mature palms and other trees from hot climates on show at a new specialist nursery near St Just.
Sarah Williams, who runs Noble Palms, is an experienced gardener, but she admits that taking on the care of these exotic plants has been a steep learning curve. However, she has embraced the opportunity to get to know them. “I love having them in my charge. I went to Portugal in the winter and saw some amazing palms, and I thought: ‘This is what mine are going to be like when they grow up’. I’ve got my favourites, and I’ve started giving them names. Clarence and Bartholomew are specimen trees which came as a pair, and they are stunning. It would be devastating for me if we sold them!”
Noble Palms is owned by Mike Pakeman, who hit upon the idea for the business after he imported some mature palms and olives as centrepieces for his own garden, just outside St Just, having failed to find a local supplier. One day, when his trailer was loaded with the trees, he parked in the square at St Just for a few minutes to buy a pasty — and in that time, three people asked him where he had got the trees, and if they were for sale.
The nursery was set up in the corner of a friend’s field, at Truthwall, above the town, and Mike approached Sarah to manage it. “I had been doing work on Mike’s garden, and we became friends. Noble Palms was his masterplan, and when he entrusted me with it, it was an adventure out of the blue,” she says.
The elevated, exposed site may seem an unlikely place for Mediterranean plants to thrive, but Sarah says: “Mike did some research into which plants would withstand our climate. Our trees have now been here for 12 months, and they wintered well. Mike has also planted some in his garden, and he hasn’t had any problems. And if they can stand the St Just climate, they will do well anywhere!”
But she is quick to add: “Although there is always a certain level of breeze here, we do get some really glorious days, with the sun beating down”. Whatever the weather, it is always calm and still in the centre of the nursery’s display area, thanks to the shelter provided by the massed ranks of mature trees. A hammock between two olive trees enhances the holiday atmosphere — and demonstrates that they are strong enough to take its weight. “It’s also a way of encouraging people to buy the trees in pairs!” says Sarah.
The nursery stocks smooth-skinned olives with giant foliage balls, and ancient varieties with gnarled trunks. There are also cypresses and rosemary trees; and the palms include the ever-popular Trachycarpus fortunei, with its sprays of yellow flowers, and silver-blue leaved Chamaerops humilis, Butia capitata and Brahea armata. “People are amazed when they see the size of the trees. Many are 15 feet tall,” says Sarah. “They have been around for ten to 15 years, and some of the olive trees are in excess of 100 years old. I didn’t expect them to be quite so big. We had to have a huge lorry to get them here, but I’m really pleased with them.”
Noble Palms can also provide trees for hire, to bring a tropical touch to marquees at weddings and other special events, or brighten up business premises. As Sarah points out: “Pubs, restaurants and hotels are often quite seasonal, and may not want to take on the responsibility of looking after plants like this all year round.”
An artist as well as a gardener, Sarah is now offering a plant pot decorating service. “I work in multimedia, and my work is inspired by things I have found, and making them into something else. I’m using shells, stones, ropes, nets and old wood I collect from local beaches to make pots into a feature work of art.”
The Noble Palms catalogue carries useful tips about the care of the plants. “Here, we rely on rainwater and pump it around the site when we need to, but our plants are in well-drained soil, and most of them are fine without much water,” Sarah says. “They are also drought-resistant, slow-growing and low-maintenance.”
Her own favourites — as well as Clarence and Bartholomew — include Yucca rostrata — “absolutely fantastic, with beautiful blue balls of long foliage coming down over a thick trunk” — and Araucaria heterophylla, the Norfolk Island pine — “I saw some in Portugal. They’re such a distinctive shape, and I thought: ‘We have to have some of these’. Unlike most of the other trees here, they don’t like very cold frosts, so are best planted in sheltered spots – but we don’t really have very cold frosts in Cornwall.
“Visitors from outside Cornwall are always amazed that we have palms growing in gardens here. More and more people love to have an exotic plant as a centrepiece for their garden. In traditional country cottage gardens, a palm tree in the middle creates a contrast. I don’t know if the change in climate is making people feel they’d like to have their own paradise.”
The Noble Palms launch party was an evocation of this vision of paradise, with rum punch served among the trees, and the chance to relax in the hammock in the spring sunshine. “Because the weather was so lovely, there was a real wow factor, which is what we wanted,” enthuses Sarah. “And it was nice to meet a lot of garden designers and landscapers, so they could see what they’ve got to offer. The feedback we’ve been getting since then has been great, and we’ve had quite a few sales.”
Sarah has had little time to devote to her art over the last few months — apart from decorating pots — but she says: “I find that the trees are quite inspiring, and get the creative juices flowing. They make me feel happy, and when I’m here, my mind is eased and relaxed.”