The Prostitute Palm?

Published in Highlights

Palm trees are not native to Croatia, but they thrive in the Mediterranean climate of the coastal regions.

The palm branch is a symbol of Victory, triumph and eternal life. It is also a symbol of peace. For the village-like town of Vrboska, known as the 'Little Venice' on Hvar, a single palm tree defines the image of the place. Rising modestly from the centre of the little islet called Škojić (the local dialect word for islet), the palm provides a charming visual focal point in Vrboska's seafront.

 

Škojić is used for summer entertainments, serving as a magical backdrop to events such as Vrboska's boat-concerts, and the perfect setting for performances such as 'Two ladies in the summer night', staged on July 10th 2014. Pictures from Vrboska's cultural programmes can be viewed on the Vrboska Tourist Board's Facebook page.

It was therefore a (nasty) surprise to many that the local council had considered and approved a proposal to remove the palm tree and re-plant Škojić for complete cover with spruce (genus picea, Croatian smrča), myrtle (myrtus communis, part of the myrtaceae family, Croatian mirta), pistachio (pistacia vera, member of the cashew family, Croatian pistacija), and carob (ceratonia siliqua, family Fabaceae, Croatian rogač). The news aroused a strong reaction, with some two hundred locals immediately signing a petition to save the palm. Opinions were expressed on the internet, with a UK tree expert who has a holiday home in Vrboska describing Škojić's single palm as an icon and a strong visual element anchoring the town's disparate seafront buildings. Local reporter Mirko Crnčević wrote a measured piece in Slobodna Dalmacija on July 21st 2014, which was followed by a wide-reaching commentary by Jurica Pavičić in national daily Jutarnji list on July 26th.

The Škojić palm has not been in place for all that long: pictures from the 1970s, such as that in Niko Duboković's excellent little guidebook to Hvar (first published in 1974, Croatian text available on the internet), show the islet covered in shrubs and trees. But despite being a relative newcomer, the palm has established itself as an emblem which, it seems, most residents and loyal visitors wish to keep. It has witnessed all the everyday and festive activities of the town, including major events such as the 2014 Procession in celebration of the quatercentenary of Vrboska's Weeping Cross. Many feel that no photograph of the Vrboska harbour would be complete without it.

The architect of the landscaping project, Dobrila Kraljić, justified the proposed destruction of the palm by terming it "exceedingly eccentric and pretentious". She accused it of sticking out like a sore thumb and seducing the eye, of conjuring up reckless exoticism. To her it was "inauthentic" and out of keeping with the environment behind it. Her ruthless denigration of the poor palm evoked a tart response from fellow-architect Barbara Matejčić, who said it sounded as though Dobrila Kraljić was describing some Eastern European prostitute, not a tree. This comment may imply racism and perhaps an unwarranted slur on the oldest profession in this pedantically politically-correct world, but one can appreciate the point nonetheless.

Is the poor lambasted palm "inauthentic"? And even if it is, is that a crime worthy of the death sentence? Does the same apply to all the other palms lining Vrboska's streets and adorning the gardens? There are a lot of them, and not only in Vrboska but all over Dalmatia.

Palm trees certainly arrived in Dalmatia from elsewhere; as did a lot of other trees, shrubs and plants. One of the joys of horticulture is the way successful plant immigration enhances a landscape. Traveller Maude Holbach, after visiting Dalmatia at the beginning of the 20th century, described her impressions of the plants flourishing on Hvar, which was then known as Lesina:
"As might be expected from its climate, all kinds of southern plants and trees flourish on Lesina, among them the date palm, olives, oranges, and lemons, giant agaves and eucalyptus." ('Dalmatia: the Land Where East Meets West' by Maude Holbach, pub. Cosimo inc., first published 1910, p 211.) On Vis (Lissa), she came across a palm of magnificent stature: "Hard by the site of the Roman villa is a date-palm, which is unmatched for size and beauty upon the shores and islands of the Adriatic. It grows in a neglected garden by the seashore and lifts its stately head full eighty feet or more into the air, rising from a bed of wild flowers and surrounded by satellite palms which would be noticeable elsewhere, and seem small only in comparison with their giant neighbour.
Three hundred years at least, the natives say, this monarch among palms has kept watch and ward upon the shores of Adria. It witnessed the invasion of the armies of the Crescent, which sent a terrified people crowding to the towers of refuge and defence, which still stand, and add a very pcturesque touch to the town. There seems no reason why it should not stand here for centuries still, and witness the awakening of sleeping Lissa to the throb of modern life which is surely coming." (ibid. p 218)
 

Thank Heaven Ms Kraljić was not around then to propose eliminating this magnificant specimen and its natural companions. A manicured orderly cultivated garden would not have made the same impression on this perceptive visitor. Wild flowers are an important part of Dalmatia's identity and personality. Tragically, it seems the decision-makers for Jelsa Council's horticultural arrangements are unaware of the part wild flowers with their natural beauty play in attracting tourists. For instance, the wild flowers which adorned the road islands around Jelsa with vibrant colour in the spring were mercilessly eradicated, leaving depressing expanses of bare earth. The shrubs planted to fill the space were ruthlessly cut back into an unnatural neatness. In particular, the forcible restraint of the rosemary, which should be allowed to grow and spread freely, is not an attractive sight.

Can the cost of revamping Škojić be justified? Personally, I doubt it. There are many more urgent needs within the locality which are not met because of a shortage of funds, despite the successful efforts of Jelsa's current mayor, Nikša Peronja, to reduce the debt left over from the previous authorities. A recycling system, which is vital for the health of the community in the Jelsa region, is not yet in sight, despite being an important part of the Croatian law on sustainable rubbish management, in keeping with European directives.

PRESERVE THE ŠKOJIĆ PALM!

Why?

1. Škojić is very attractive as it is

2. In its present form, Škojić is ideal for staging concerts, readings and other events

3. The Škojić palm is a unique emblem identifying Vrboska

4. It is an established tourist attraction

 

© Vivian Grisogono MA(Oxon) 2014

 

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