It belongs to the sun room like Merlot and Rustici: the Ticino palm. Every hillside villa, like here in Brione s. Minusio, has at least one palm tree in the garden.
She is the star of the sun room. It sticks out of every garden, in many selfies, and is the eye-catcher on every postcard: the Ticino palm. Even with the record drought, Trachycarpus fortunei keeps its composure. According to a representative survey from 2021, 80 percent of Ticino people love their “Palma ticinese”. Nowhere in the world are there so many of these species in one place as in the southern canton. But the beautiful hemp palm tree, which originally came from China, also has its downsides – not just against the light of the glowing sun.
Guido Maspoli (55) wipes the low leaf fans aside. The biologist from the cantonal office for nature and landscape protection is walking the beaten path through the new jungle of Tegna TI. The alluvial forest on the banks of the Maggia used to consist of lime trees, alders, ash trees and hornbeams. “Now palm trees are crowding out the deciduous trees,” says Maspoli, pointing to the dense palm grove that lines the sandy path like a meter-high wall.
Invasive palm threatens floodplain and protection forests
More than 5,000 square meters of floodplain forest are affected, according to the Ticino, “the wild palm growth begins where the gardens end”. The palm trees were planted on private property. And if the fruits are not cut off, «birds spread the seeds in the forest. The palm trees grow densely, taking away the sunlight from the forest floor and giving the young trees the space to grow,” explains Guido Maspoli.
But it is not just about saving the protected floodplain forest. Equally concerned, Maspoli looks at the steep slope above the Centovallina railway and the cantonal road in Solduno TI. “Palm trees have sown there. They threaten the protective forest and could one day pose a security risk. “The palm trees pose a fire hazard. Flames in the grove are very difficult to control,” continued Guido Maspoli. “I don’t want to be a firefighter when the palm forest is on fire.” The fire would come dangerously close to the settlements.
Alain Zamboni (63) has been with the fire brigade in Locarno TI for 40 years. The commander knows palm fires well. “Most of the time, individual palm trees go up in flames. Often because people light the bast on the trunk with a lighter,” says Maspoli, “the fire spreads rapidly, climbs to the crown and blazes like a torch, usually burns out after a minute”. His advice: “Don’t grill or make a fire near the palm trees and have water ready to extinguish.”
Interventions in palm forests are very expensive
There are still no known major fires in Ticino palm groves, says Boris Pezzatti (50) from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) in Cadenazzo TI. “But if the palm trees grow taller and carry more dry leaves along the trunk, then the fire potential also increases. Thank God, palm trees grow slowly.” The intervention is easy, according to Pezzatti: “Since they only have one bud, the palm tree can be sawn off when it reaches a meter in height.”
The environmental scientist and his colleague Vincent Fehr (34) have been working for two years on a study of the Chinese hemp palm or Palma di Fortune, named after the British botanist Robert Fortune (1812-1880). On a map, the researchers show where the palm tree grows: especially in southern Ticino and along the valleys – up to Faido TI. There are now so many that effective interventions would be very expensive. “Even in Zurich there are the first wild palm trees,” says Vincent Fehr, “they can endure sub-zero temperatures, but not permafrost.” Mild winters due to climate change could encourage palm growth.
Diego Glaus (54) is a fan of the majestic plant. There are over 400 palm trees in the 27,000 square meter park garden of his hotel in Losone TI. Some of them are over 100 years old. “They give the Albergo Losone the Mediterranean flair,” says the hotelier. When his parents opened the hotel in 1955, the municipality of Losone gave the couple a “lucky palm”. “Four gardeners take care of the palm garden and regularly cut the fruit,” says Glaus. “Even if they can be invasive – for me the palm trees are just beautiful”.
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