Chuniophoenix - Chinese Charmer

Tobias Spanner looks at this beautiful palm, new to cultivation.
Tobias Spanner, Tizianstrasse 44, 8000 München 19, Germany
Chamaerops No. 6, published online 23-10-2002

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Author and Subject: Chuniophoenix in China.

The genus Chuniophoenix comprises three species of small clustering fan palms distributed from Vietnam, south China and Hainan Island, where they occur in the undergrowth of evergreen monsoonal forests.

Botanically, Chuniophoenix belongs to the sub-tribe Coryphinae. Their relatives are the fabulous Corypha and Nannorrhops.

Chuniophoenix are rather small palms with open crowns on top of thin, ringed, clustering stems. A remarkable characteristic on which they can be distinguished from other fan palms is their total lack of a hastula.

These plants are mostly hermaphrodites - each flower carrying female and male characteristics. Inflorescences appear among the leaves and produce quantities of small, mostly single seeded green to yellow fruits which are 1-2cms in diameter and which turn scarlet when ripe.

There are three species of Chuniophoenix: C. nana and C. humilis are dainty little palms, resembling Rhapis and rarely more than 1.5 metres in height. Chuniophoenix hainanensis, the most impressive member of the genus, forms quite large clumps of slender stems, about 5-7cms in diameter, reaching 3 metres in height and topped by broad, spreading crowns.

Don't feel embarrassed if you haven't heard of Chuniophoenix before. Although these lovely and attractive palms would make great ornamentals, they are almost unknown in cultivation.

Seeds or even plants have only very, very rarely been imported to the western world. This is a great pity because all three species should prove quite adaptable in cultivation either indoors or out.

Chuniophoenix prefer a seasonal climate with hot, very wet summers and cool to mild, rather dry winters. Ideal summer temperatures would be between 23-28°C. Winter temperatures can range from 13-17°C or lower. Whereas Chuniophoenix nana prefers shade or half shade for optimum growth, Chuniophoenix hainanensis likes more light and can be grown in full sun when older. It does grow in shade also but gets a bit unsightly. None of them is too fussy about soil conditions but do best in a good loamy humus and well-drained mix. Because of their moderate size, Chuniophoenix are well suited to pot culture and they should do well in a greenhouse. The smaller species withstand indoor conditions quite well - their requirements probably being much like those of Rhapis. Chuniophoenix hainanensis might also prove to be a nice patio plant for a warm and protected spot.

All three species have yet to be tried outdoors in Europe. Chuniophoenix is cultivated in southern Florida and might also adapt well to cultivation in the milder parts of the Mediterranean region.

The resistance to frost is unknown, although I would estimate them to withstand about -5°C, as indicated by other palms in this area of China & Vietnam. Frost occurs very rarely there but temperatures drop to 0°C occasionally.

Division by separating suckers from an old plant could be possible, at least with the smaller species, but, with lack of old plants, propagation is usually from seed (which is hard enough to get). Seeds resemble those of Caryota in size and shape and are of a light brown to beige colour. They germinate very quickly, usually within a few days or weeks if fresh.

So, if you can manage to get hold of one of these Chinese lovelies, give it a try. It will be worth it for its rarity alone.

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