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Trachycarpus in snow

Herbert Riphagen, co-owner of Gardenpalms Europe:

'Trachycarpus wagnerianus will make a come-back!'

In the late nineties Herbert Riphagen was the first European to trade in Trachycarpus wagnerianus. This niche-plant's introduction ran smoothly at first, until in 2004 and 2005 the plant the market was swamped with it. This didn't do the plant's image any good at all. Yet Riphagen still believes in this palm.

Herbert Riphagen turned out to be a chip off the old block after all. After dropping out of economic high-school at the age of nineteen he initially chose not to follow in his father's footprints, who at that moment was running a tree nursery in Oene in the Netherlands. He chose to travel and visted nearly every continent, but spent most of his time in the far East. His ties with Indonesia are the strongest, having been born there when his parents were involved in development aid. It was there that he met his wife, whom he decided to bring back to Holland in 1995. In a terraced house in Ede, East Holland, he claimed the basement and the garden for his collection of seeds of palms and other plants. 'During my travels it became apparent that I'm an exotic tree freak! And I wanted to hold on to that.', he says.

One thing lead to another. The seeds that he nurtured and planted in his garden seemed to tolerate Dutch winters well. On internet he discovered that he wasn't the only one infected with a passion for exotic plants and trees. And there was no stopping him when in 2001 he visited a trade fair in Spain and sold 30.000 palm seeds, intending to make room at home. This was the beginning of his business in palms. At that moment a market with considerable potential, he discovered. He grew that first batch with his brother, from whom he hired part of a greenhouse.

From then on his staff supplied young plants to wholesalers and completed the nurturing of young plants supplied from Spain and Italy.

Trachycarpus wagnerianus

A palm close to Riphagen's heart is the Trachycarpus wagnerianus. He is the first in Europe to sow these in larger quantities towards the end of the nineties. 'It's the Trachycarpus fortunei's brother, but more beautiful. Just as hardy, but the stiffer leaves tolerate wind better. And wagnerianus maintains its lower leaves, as opposed to fortunei. They don't turn yellow and so don't have to be pruned. And so you get a nice, compact growth. It's a slower grower; that makes it more expensive than fortunei'.

Riphagen's strategy is to establish Trachycarpus wagnerianus as a niche product. In 2001 he manages to obtain seed from an English amateur, whose tree produced around 60.000-80.000 seeds per year in his garden. He is no longer dependent upon China and Japan for his seeds.

Three years later the palm lover is approached by a rich Korean who informs him that Trachycarpus wagnerianus is to be found growing en masse on a Korean island. They come to an agreement that Riphagen will manage the distribution of the wagnerianus plants that his Korean partner manages to aquire. But the Korean works to a larger scale than agreed and passes Riphagen by when his investment isn't returned on quickly enough. The deal gets out of control.

The Korean buys a greenhouse in Rijnsburg to grow the palms himself. 'Not with quality as a first priority, just like others trying to cash-in. The necessary time to allow the plants to develop was more and more absent; rootless trees were sold and were even auctioned', claims Riphagen. 'Just as Trachycarpus wagnerianus appeared in large numbers in 2004 and 2005, it now dissappeared from the market. Riphagen admits that the fiasco has damaged the general image of the palm.

Erica as ideal home base

Company information
Company: Gardenpalms Europe, Erica
Grower: Herbert Riphagen
Plant: Mainly Trachycarpus wagnerianus. Also import other palms, tree-ferns, ferns and yuccas. And the cultivation of other trachycarpus.
Notes: As far as Herbert Riphagen knows, Gardenpalms is the only Dutch company that grows mature Trachycarpus wagnerianus from pot. With his business partner, Hendrik Speet, he already supplies reasonable quantities in pot sizes 15, 17, 21, 23 and 26. This year pot sizes 30 and 35 will also become available.

The Trachycarpus wagnerianus debacle caused Gardenpalms quite a few problems. Riphagen tried to compensate by setting up web shops for retail sales. Riphagen also buys the domain name of every new palm with potential and publishes information about it. 'Enthusiastic amateurs don't worry about exchanging seeds and information; everyone profits from this after all. I don't make a secret of my commercial activities, after all I'm primarily a palm-freak. I'm not worried about competition; that's all for the best.'

Thanks to this open attitude, it doesn't take long before Riphagen has left his problems behind him and resumes his palm activities anew. His growth prompts him to work together with plant trader Hendrik Speet in 2009. Gardenpalms Holland becomes Gardenpalms Europe. A greenhouse of 2 ha is bought in Erica. And now the greenhouse is almost full of palms and other beauties such as yuccas, banana plants and tree ferns.

'Erica (a small town in the north east of Holland) is a great basis to work from. We managed to get hold of the greenhouse fairly cheaply and doing business with Germany, our primary market, is cheap here. Germany post and parcel services pick up the products here so that we don't have to pay international transport fees' says Riphagen.

Businessman and adventurer

Most of the plants in the nursery are imported and then nurtured to maturity. Mature plants can be supplied to order. A small part of the nursery is devoted to cultivation of trachycarpus plants, the parent plants are planted out. Produce from own seeds are supplied to those interested; primarily to individuals but increasingly to wholesalers. The only palm to be grown fully from seed to mature plant is the Trachycarpus wagnerianus. This occupies around half of the companys area. 'I still believe in this palm. We are making a pot variant which is incomparible with the plants of a decennium ago. Trachycarpus will make a come-back' is Riphagen's conviction. And in the meantime considerable quantities of pot-grown plants are available in pot-sizes 15, 17, 21, 23 and 26 cm. This year pot sizes 30 and 35 will also become available.

Now the greenhouse is almost full, Riphagen doubts whether he will expand with Speet. If they maintain the same area of greenhouse then yuccas, other plants and maybe even some types of palm will make way for tree ferns. 'Our strength will remain the large diversity of palms and ferns. And we will continue to serve both private individuals and wholesalers. Besides that, I'm not going to stop roaming the world for new palms. I'll remain both businessman and adventurer', says Riphagen.

The road back

Gardenpalms Trachycarpus wagnerianus
Trachycarpus wagnerianus is cultivated in pot by partners Herbert Riphagen and Hendrik Speet in Erica, Holland.

'As soon as the right information about hardy palms is told to consumers and they are no longer dissapointed, then the palm will take the place of many conifers in gardens in years to come', suggests Riphagen. He expects much of Trachycarpus takil which comes from the high mountains of Kalamuni, India. Riphagen harvests the seed at 2.500m altitude himself. 'This is the most hardy Trachycarpus, much hardier than the fortunei, which already needs protection from -13°C. And takil has a silvery colour to the underside of its leaves; that's going to be beautiful crossed with other Trachycarpus varieties.'

Trachycarpus wagnerianus comeback

Pether van Leth, hortipoint.nl