Exotic species

He stuffed them in his pocket. Once home, he germinated them.

Credit: Michael Ferguson

Among a small circle of local gardeners, those who press against the edges of what is possible to grow here, Gerard Pury is a bit of a legend. And here is why.

In 1964 the young landscaper returned to his native Switzerland to visit his sister in the southern lakeside city of Lugarno. There in the Mediterranean microclimate, between the mountains and the water, he was quite taken by the windmill palms: “They grew like weeds,” he recalls. But as they grew they didn’t block the view; “they formed a silhouette.”

Before he left to return to Vancouver, Pury gathered a dozen or so seeds and stuffed them into his pocket. Once home again, he germinated them.

That first winter he lost some, but enough survived. It would be another 20 years before he began to spread them broadly about the city and across the region.

Pury wasn’t the first person to plant a palm here, but he is the man credited with their popularity. Among his fans, he is affectionately called the Palm Father.

Along with his friends who helped form the Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society, Pury lobbied the city to allow the first major public planting of palms at Beach Avenue and Jervis Street. That was in 1991.

Now windmill palms are everywhere along Beach from Hornby Street to the English Bay boardwalk. And once you draw a bead on one, you will see them all over town.

Even though there is a renewed interest in native plants, we have always had an appetite to expand our vegetative smorgasbord. That craving first reached its height in the Victorian era when for pleasure, or profit, or in the name of science, humans caused plants to migrate from one part of the planet to another.

The windmill palm Pury found in Switzerland is actually native to China. That’s where it was spotted in the mid-1800s by Robert Fortune, a botanist dispatched by the Horticultural Society of London to collect plants for them. In all, he managed to bring back 120 plant species, many of which were named in his honour, including the windmill palm: Trachycarpus fortunei.

If you find it odd to see palms growing here, if you have a sense of arboreal indigestion, consider this: palms are just among the latest to be added to the menu. The cherry trees that line our streets and explode into a profusion of pink clouds every spring came to North America from Japan at the turn of the last century. With the exception of one type of rhododendron and the arbutus, none of the broad-leafed evergreen trees is native to Vancouver. Hollies, camellias and laurels are all immigrants. The monkey puzzle tree, which is actually a conifer, comes from the highlands of Chile.

Some imports, of course, have added a sour note: English ivy and Scotch broom. But overall we enjoy variety in our gardening diets.

Now in his eighties, Pury is stooped from his landscaping labours; his knuckles resemble small walnuts and he has an uneven gait thanks to an accident on the job. But his passion persists in finding and growing new things.

He takes pride in the fact that he lives in “zonal denial.” As well as palms, which surround his small South Vancouver house in pots and flats and in the garden, he encourages more precarious species.

In early March he takes the wraps off of bananas, although he says that once they are established they will grow even though their stems are frozen back to the ground. Wrapping just gives them a head start.

Next, the blue quilted insulating blankets come off the Tasmanian tree ferns – which he started growing in 1994 – to reveal a stock as thick as a man’s thigh about four feet tall and devoid of fronds. “They survived the ice age,” he says, so they should be able to struggle through a winter in Vancouver.

The palms, once established, are on their own. Two from that first pocket full of seeds from Switzerland still survive and thrive. The first notable transplant was to a piece of property owned by department store magnate Chunky Woodward on Point Grey Road. It is still there. The other, Gerard Pury’s, is still in his own yard.

Allen Garr is a Vancouver journalist and commentator who has made time for his passions: birding, gardening and beekeeping.