Growing palms is addictive

Exotic plants at Gardenpalms Europe in Erica, Holland

Gardenpalms, a palm nursery in Erica, Holland, is an unusual company. It's one of the few horticultural companies in North-West Europe which specializes in the import, cultivation and trade of exotic trees and plants. Besides all sorts of varieties and sizes of palms the company also supplies yuccas, banana-plants and tree ferns.

Herbert Riphagen of Gardenpalms
Cultivating palms requires patience and thinking ahead, says palm grower Herbert Riphagen in Erica, North-East Holland.

De plants literally come from all over the world, says Herbert Riphagen (42), who runs the company together with his partner, Hendrik Speet. The seeds, plants and trees arrive via Rotterdam from Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, India and South America. "And we sell throughout Europe."

The exotic specialization of the company is closely related to Riphagens life. The son of gardeners from the Veluwe area of Holland, he grew up in Indonesia. There his parents were involved in development work. After returning to the Netherlands and completing his schooling in business studies Riphagen frequently traveled to the Far East and other continents to look around. In 1998, Riphagen came back to the Netherlands to settle with his Indonesian wife. In Ede, they found a suitable house, but they wanted to retain something of the tropical atmosphere in which they both grew up. "You can maintain an exotic garden in the winter. But I soon found out that there was not much available. Appropriate plants and trees were hard to find or were very small, thin and therefore fragile. "

So he decided to start growing palms, first just in pots in the attic. Through the internet Riphagen came into contact with people with similar interests. And so he established his first contacts.

Trade fair

The hobby began to get more serious when he visited a trade show in Spain in 2001. Here he made a wholesale order of 30,000 palm seeds. Some of these he cultivated in his brothers greenhouse, who had just taken over the parental conifer nursery in Oene, Holland. "There was business to be had in palms, the market was really just opening up." Riphagen divided his first batch of young palms in two: one half for sales to wholesalers in Spain and the other half went to South America in a container to cultivated there. "Transport costs for these destinations were about the same." When grown the trees were then returned to the nursery in Holland where they were allowed to root up further before delivery to clients.

Riphagen went into business with Hendrik Speet, a plant trader who had frequently bought his plants. In Erica, in North-East Holland and close to the German border, they bought a 20,000m2 glas greenhouse to establish a new nursery. "At first it was a bit too big, but now it fits us perfectly. That the nursery is not close to an auction, but right on the German border is beneficial for us. We're situated perfectly and this property was affordable. Another advantage is that many of our sales are in Germany and our position allows us to save on transport there. "In addition to FloraHolland Palms Guard delivers a lot to larger garden centers, project developers and zoological gardens via the German auction house Landgard.


„From traveller I have become nurseryman and trader. I see this as an ideal combination. I see myself not as an entrepreneur, but more as an adventurer: I am continually motivated to do new things. "Once the busy season from March to May is over and all orders have been fulfilled, Riphagen sets off into the wide world several times a year to visit or business contacts, foreign nurseries and to look for new species.

He was recently in India to buy seed of a palm species that grows high in the mountains. "That plant is so new and unknown that we still have everything to discover about it." The subsequent cultivation in their own greenhouse is designed to see how the growth is and how hardy the plant will be.

The care taken to get to know the plant is important for marketing in Northwest Europe. According to Riphagen many prejudices about palms exist in the market among consumers. The myth is that the trees will freeze to death  at the slightest hint of winter. But, says the nurseryman, it's not that bad. "There are plenty of species that can take a bit of winter." This has proven by establishing a fully stocked garden. "They declared me near crazy first. They said all my palms would be dead in the spring. That did not happen and the plants have been a runaway succes. "

Riphagen and Speet started up at exactly the right time, they claim. Especially between 1998 and 2008 things business was brisk. "The palm has become a trend, like the potted olive and the banana." But to convert a trend to a sustainable market, products should not fall short of peoples expectations and last longer. Much depends on good product information, according to the palm grower. "With a palm as consumers buy an experience. People who have been on holiday somewhere in a sunny country, want to retain a piece of that holiday feeling by buying and maintaining a palm. A palm creates an exotic ambience and consumers will grow attached to the trees.

The rapid rise of the demand for such plants, however has outrun the provision of information, analyzes Riphagen. "The trade and therefore consumers do not know what can and can't be done with a palm tree, what kinds are hardy. Keeping one planted out in your garden just requires a little more knowledge. "

According to Riphagen there were a lot of old wifes tales about palms in the early years. So all species which arrived at Gardenpalms were initally tested. "We tell the whole story on our consumers site, and pay a lot of attention to product descriptions." Cultivating palms requires thinking ahead for at least five to six years, he says. This is the amount of time required to be able to deliver a mature and robust tree. Besides cultivation from seed (grafting or taking cuttings doesn't work with palms) and importing young palms to root on for a period of two years, the company also imports mature trees to order. For example, if a zoo needs to set up a new, exotic retreat for its animals. Besides palms trees Gardenpalms can also supply tree ferns; species specially imported from Tasmania which can grow to 12 or 13 metres in length.

Nursery open to the public

Gardenpalms Europe (just over the border from Germany at Beekweg 18, Erica, Holland) is open to the public every Saturday between 10am and 4pm. Every spring the company takes part in the annual open days (Kom in de Kas).
It's important to have public visiting us, says nurseryman Herbert Riphagen. „That's the way to keep a feeling for the market and the consumer. Otherwise, as grower you risk becoming isolated in your greenhouse.”

Palm trees react slowly

Riphagen does not so much want to get bigger with his company, he says, but better. "There's so much to learn. The winter of '96-'97 and last winter were good tests to see what can and can't do. But palms are slow to respond. You only notice after one to three months if you've done something wrong."

Not only Riphagen has been infected with the palm virus: the cultivation of this plant has attracted an international club of enthusiasts who exchange seeds and knowledge among themselves and who discuss avidly on internet forums. Riphagen owes them a lot. "Growing palms requires patience and good seed can only be found with knowledge and the right contacts. I like to share the knowledge I gain with others. I am not afraid of competition, that's just healthy. "

Gardenpalms kas

© Translated from Nieuwe Oogst, Joost De la Court, 31-Maart-2012