Spotlight on: Trithrinax
Germany's Tobias Spanner takes a look at this
much under-used palm genus, containing some of the world's most
beautiful hardy palms.
Tobias Spanner, Tizianstrasse 44, 8000 München 19, Germany
Chamaerops No. 8, published online 23-10-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Heavily armed: Thritrinax campestris
The genus Trithrinax comprises five species of small
to moderate, solitary or clustering fan-palms from northern Argentina,
southern Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay, where they occur
mostly in savannah-like dry forest vegetation (Chaco).
Trithrinax is considered one of the most primitive
palm genera which could well be looked at as a palm prototype especially
in its reproductive parts (info re sc en c e, flowers and fruit).
Its closest relatives are two even less known rare palms from tropical
South America, Itaya and Cryosophila, the Root Spine Palms.
All species are easily recognised by their characteristic
heavy armament with very spiny fibrous leaf sheaths, which persist
on the stem, and gives them formidable protection. Eventually, on
older specimens, the sheaths are shed to reveal a slender, roughly
The stem carries a small to medium crown of stiff,
circular, regularly palmate leaves, which are rather flat, not costopalmate
and in most species beautifully glaucous on one or both sides. Inflorescences
appear in late winter or early spring and produce clusters of showy,
mostly white or yellow fruits in autumn, which hang down in bunches
like grapes. Being hermaphroditic, even a single plant can produce
The species you are most likely to come across is
Trithrinax acanthocoma, the 'Spiny Fibre Palm', the largest one
in the genus, from southern Brazil and Paraguay.
This very ornamental and unusual plant develops
a robust trunk about 20 cm in diameter and 4 metres or more tall,
densely covered with spines from persistent leaf sheaths, topped
by a crown of large, mid-green to slightly glaucous fan-leaves divided
into broad, pointed, sometimes drooping segments. The fleshy, yellow
white fruits are 22.5cm in diameter, and grow in large bunches.
Trithrinax acanthocoma occurs in an area with warm
summers and mild winters and experiences daily occasional light
to medium frosts. The climate is rather dry with rainfall, which
is more or less evenly distributed throughout the year.
A similar but smaller species is Trithrinax brasiliensis.
It is said to be nearly extinct in its native habitat in southeast
Brazil, northeast Argentina and possibly Uruguay. It has deeply
divided leaf blades of medium size, similar to Trachycarpus fortunei,
green above and glaucous below, and the leaflets are bifid at the
The solitary or sometimes caespitose stems are slender,
7-15cm in diameter and up to 4 metres tall. The black fruits are
round, small, 0.8cm in diameter. Climatic conditions are warm temperate,
similar to T. acanthocoma.
My personal favourite in the genus is the extremely
desirable Trithrinax campestris from north-eastern Argentina, a
very hardy species which grows as a clump of several short prostrate
or erect trunks to about 2 metres tall, with small, very stiff,
silvery-grey leaves. It is viciously armed not only with its fibrous
stem but also with long spikes on the tips of the leaflets. Fruits
are the size of T. acanthocoma.
The climate is warm temperate with only occasional
light to medium frosts.
Further inland in northern Argentina and western
Paraguay grows another beautiful, small, caespitose species, the
very rare Trithrinax biflabellata. Found in wetter, semi-dry situations
in sandy marshes or along riverbanks, often on saline soils and
in a warmer climate with hot summers and warm winters and only occasional
medium frosts. It is probably the best species for cultivation indoors.
It develops very slender, curving trunks, sometimes
to 5 metres high. The rather small, narrow leaf-blade has a deep
central division almost to the base. Fruits are globose, about 1
cm in diameter.
Finally, there is Trithrinax schizophylla, a rather
tall, robust, caespitose species, which reaches the foothills of
the Andes in its distribution area from northwestern Argentina,
southern Bolivia to southeastern Brazil. It grows in an arid climate
with hot summers and mild winters with occasional medium frosts.
The plant grows several tall trunks up to 5 metres
high and I 5-20cms in diameter, densely covered in spiny leaf sheaths
as all Trithrinax. Leaves are rigid and of medium size. The fruits
are small, 0.8 cms in diameter and a yellow-green colour.
Trithrinax are very adaptable and rewarding subjects
for cultivation, and particularly attractive ornamentals for their
rigid, often glaucous leaves and the finely netted leaf sheaths,
but, unfortunately, besides T. acanthocoma, which is occasionally
seen, all species are rare in cultivation.
All Trithrinax are exceedingly cold tolerant and
can be grown outside all around the Mediterranean with little protection,
and even in milder parts of northern Europe. They will grow well
even in areas with cooler summers with the possible exception of
T. biflabellata, and will withstand even heavier frosts. T. acanthocoma
will be unharmed down to -9°C and T. campestris has been reported
to withstand temperatures from 50 down to - I 20C. The other species
should be just as hardy as indicated by the occurrence of frost
in their native habitats.
Although they are very resistant to drought, for
best results, all species should be kept well watered in the summer
and not too heavily fertilized. In winter, plants especially those
in containers, should be kept rather dry. Trithrinax needs fresh
air and resents damp conditions in winter. When planted in areas
with cold, moist winters, plants might require some protection against
heavy rain, or snowfall.
The biggest problem with Trithrinax is still getting
hold of plants or seeds. Even small plants are rarely available
as are seeds, and germination unfortunately is not too easy. If
you are lucky enough to get seeds, soak them for a few days and
then sow at 25-30 C. With fresh seeds, the first seedlings should
appear after 2-3 months but may also take much longer, more than
a year is not unusual, so patience is required.
The small rigid leaved species will grow on very
slowly but at least T. acanthocoma and T. brasiliensis will do a
quite bearable rate. They can flower when still quite young. Deep
pots are advisable for maximum growth.
Trithrinax are spectacular, very ornamental and
unusual, tough, robust house-tub or outdoor palms which can be grown
in most conditions without major difficulties. Highly recommended!
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