Variations On A Theme

Seen one Chusan Palm and you've seen them all? Not so, says The Netherlands' Wilko Karmelk.
Wilko Karmelk, H. Heyermansstr. 99, 4532 GK Terneuzen, Holland
Chamaerops No. 1, published online 23-11-2002

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Red trunked Chusan Palm

We all know that the Chusan Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is among the hardiest of all palm trees and it is usually the first one that we try in our gardens. Not only is it very hardy, but also a great advantage is that it can grow at cooler temperatures compared with other palms. There are other Trachycarpus species that are also very interesting, but so far they are very rare in cultivation.

Trachycarpus martianus can be seen in only one or two private gardens in Europe, along the Mediterranean. Likewise, Trachycarpus takil is cultivated in only one or two gardens in Italy, and Trachycarpus nanus, which occurs in Yunnan in China, has yet to make it to Europe at all, or for that matter, anywhere else outside its native home.

It is interesting to find that there are several variations of' Trachycarpus fortunei itself. The variety "Wagnerianus' is a clear example. It is a very ornamental palm, and looks quite distinct with its typical short, stiff, leaf blades. This feature, however, is not sufficient to give it species status.

In northern Italy I saw some other varieties of T. fortunei. In the botanic garden 'Villa Taranto in Pallanza, there was a large specimen with totally orbicular, quite stiff leaves. The leaf segments were formed into a complete flat circle, quite different from the normal three-quarter circle. It is not known if these characteristics are passed on to the descendants.

Most of the Chusan Palms in Pallanza have naked trunks. Often there are fibres only a metre or so below the leaves. Perhaps these trees have had the fibres cut by the local people. During World War Two and afterwards, it was very common to use the fibres for making ropes; nowadays there are cheaper and better substitutes, so one would assume that this practice has more or less stopped.

Nearly all the naked trunks are of a dark grey colour. A few are different however and show a much brighter trunk colour. The actual trunk is greenish white and covered with reddish-brown rings, quite regularly spaced.

I first saw a picture of this Trachycarpus variant in the magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society. In one of the 1973 issues there was an article about it by a Mr Derek Fox. He wrongly assumed it to be Trachycarpus martianus, a common mistake with bare-trunked T. fortunei. The seeds however, were kidney-shaped and showed no similarity to the very characteristic seeds of T. martianus, which are like short fat date seeds with a longitudinal groove.

Mr Fox himself took some seeds from these palm trees, and germinated them back in England. One or two of the resultant plants are still to be found apparently, at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, and would now be sixteen years old. It would be very interesting to know if they bear the unique features of the parent.

It is of course possible that the Italian trees have had the fibres cut for some reason. If this is so, then in the course of time the colour of the trunk will turn less bright, and finally become a dull greyish brown. The palms in Pallanza were growing in a very neglected garden. Most of them had a few metres of trunk, but there was a small one just beginning to show its bright colours. Just in front of it was a much larger Trachycarpus with a conventional hairy trunk. If the fibres had been cut, why would anyone take the smaller and not the larger tree?

It will remain a mystery until they can be examined again after a good length of time. If and when I am in Italy I will certainly check them, and will report on what I find.

The last variation I would like to write about is one that I saw in Rome. The palm had a few feet of trunk and there were two suckers coming from the base. The leaves were very stiff, quite similar to the wagnerianus type. Perhaps it was the so called 'var. caespitosus' or 'surculosa' as is found in Leonardslee Gardens in Sussex, England.

If you know of other variants of the Chusan Palm I would be very interested to hear about them, perhaps through the pages of this magazine.

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