I read an article recently which depressed me. Apparently there is a bug eating all the palm trees in the Med region and since palm trees are what people expect down here, it would be devastating if they were all to disappear. I mean, it’s what the place is known for and I’ve even planted quite a few round the house to make it feel just that little bit exotic, much to the chagrin of my French neighbour.
As soon as you come out of Nice airport, and I’m sure many others in France and Italy, you are met by palm trees galore. The five miles of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and the Croisette in Cannes are lined with them and these tourist hot-spots would just not be the same without the trees, but it may come to that.
These tropical plants have been all but wiped out in parts of southern France by two beautiful but voracious insects: a South American moth and the Asian red palm weevil. The larvae of these two deadly "palmivores" ruthlessly eat their way through palm tree hearts often fatally wounding the plant.
The paysandisia archon moth is believed to have landed in France in 1997 in a consignment of palms from Argentina, their country of origin. It has since been so effective in chomping its way through paradise palms that experts say the insect has wiped out 80 per cent of the plants in the Languedoc Roussillon region.
The beautiful moth, with a wingspan of up to 4 ins (11cm), lays its eggs on the trees from May to October. Once hatched, the fat white grub munches through young fronds then bores galleries into the palm tree heart. A year later, the larva turns into a moth, leaves the palm and the female lays another batch of up to 150 eggs.
Down here, meanwhile, the Côte d'Azur's palms have been colonised by an army of rust-coloured weevils. They were accidentally introduced to the Riviera three years ago in a consignment of palms from southeast Asia and have wreaked destruction among larger palm species such as the Phoenix variety lining the Cannes Croisette. Munching their way from top to bottom, the weevils eventually kill the crown of the tree. The bugs are so industrious that their burrowing can often be heard if you place your ear against the trunk of a palm tree. The picture is of some Pheonix palms I found in Cannes which obviously have fallen foul of the dreaded weevil.
However, the two-pronged foreign insect invaders may have finally met their match. After a variety of increasingly desperate and unsuccessful pest control attempts, experts believe the palm's saviour could be a microscopic ringworm that latches on to the moth and weevil larvae and kills any it meets.
Controlled tests have proven very effective, while recent field tests in eight sites in the Hérault and Côte d'Azur regions have shown a "stabilisation or improvement of treated palms", bringing near-condemned plants back to life. The worms are sprayed on to the palms in a water-based solution.
However, not every expert thinks the palms have found a saviour with some alarmists predicting that southern France will be bereft of palms within a few years.