The Thailand Trachycarpus
Your editor takes a trip to Thailand to investigate
the occurrence of an unusual species of Trachycarpus.
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Martin Gibbons, The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West, London
SW14 7ED, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 9, published online 23-09-2002
Left: The 'Doi Chiang Dao Trachycarpus' leans out
from the sheer rock face in characteristic fashion. This one is
about 25 feet tall.
Right, top: Silhouette of the 'Doi Chiang Dao Trachycarpus' leaf,
showing regular leaf splits.
Right, below left: Doi Chiang Dao
Right, below right: Cycas pectinata
When Dr. John Dransfield of Kew told me that there
was 'a Trachycarpus' growing in northern Thailand that 'needed investigating'
it seemed a heaven-sent way to fill the four spare days at the end
of the trip to China that Toby Spanner of Munich and I had undertaken
to find Trachycarpus nanus. He, John, told me that the palm had
originally been 'discovered' in the 1920's and was well known to
the Thai Forestry Department, but that it had been mistakenly classified
as a Livistona, and its description, together with a black-&-white
photograph, had languished in the herbarium at Kew until the seventies
when he spotted the mistake. It was certainly a Trachycarpus and
in the absence of seed material, which would indicate which, it
was classified as T. martianus, which it certainly resembled. This
assumption was proven wrong when some seeds arrived for inspection
(they were reniform as opposed to the T. martianus' oval & grooved)
and a question mark has hung over its true identity ever since.
This puzzle could have been invented for Toby & I, and we gladly
took up the challenge to throw some more light on the subject.
John kindly suggested the names of two botanists
in Bangkok who might be able to help us, and a visit to one of them
on our arrival in Thailand led to us meeting Rachun Pooma of the
Royal Thai Forestry Department, who knew of this palm but had never,
until now, had the opportunity to visit the site where it grows.
Rachun was extremely helpful, meeting us at Chiang
Mai airport, accommodating us at his residence, and taking us out
that first evening for a splendid Thai meal, complete with Singha
beer. Wonderful! Between ourselves, I think he was just as excited
at the prospect of a trip 'up country' as we were, and he certainly
could not have organized the expedition any better. The following
day, he arranged to borrow a huge 4-wheel-drive jeep, complete with
driver, and to pick up a couple of guides en route. We set off at
lOam, stopping on the way to get supplies for the two days we would
be away. We then drove out of Chiang Mai and after a couple of hours
turned into a side road, heading for the mountain range, where grew
The jeep was very powerful. Rachun sat in the front
with the driver, Toby and I in the open back, a plank having been
fixed athwart to serve as a seat. However, as we began to climb,
the road became so rough and bumpy that we were obliged to stand,
from which position we had an excellent view of the changing scenery
and vegetation. The temperature fell slowly as we went up, and coconut
palms gave way to huge Livistona speciosa, wonderful and noble trees,
growing wild in the forest. There were also hundreds of bamboos
of all shapes and sizes arching across the road, sometimes forming
a tunnel. Another interesting palm we saw was the trunkless Wallichia
caryotoides, in deep shade.
The road became atrocious with deep muddy ruts and
areas where the road had slipped away. The 4-wheel-drive was quite
indispensable as the road was so steep as well as muddy. Sometimes
the rear of the vehicle seemed in danger of overtaking the front
and sometimes we slipped dangerously close to the edge of the road
and a sheer drop.
We continued in this way for some two hours, upward
and ever upward. From time to time we saw our destination through
the trees - Doi Chiang Dao mysterious and extremely steep, one peak
in a range of relict limestone mountains, separated by time and
distance from the vegetation of the surrounding countryside. With
binoculars we could make out hundreds of palm trees silhouetted
on its crest. They looked far too exotic to be humble Trachycarpus,
but that's indeed what they were. After this difficult journey we
arrived at "base camp" an outpost of the forestry department,
where lived and worked the forest rangers with wives and children,
some 10 to 15 people in all. The time was now about 2pm, not enough
daylight left for the climb up today so we would stay the night
here and set off in the morning.
There was not much to do though we did walk half
an hour to a vantage point to have a closer look at 'our' mountain.
My goodness it looked awfully steep! On the way we came across some
very large Cycas pectinata. Some of them must have been hundreds
of years old, and were forked and branched. At about 8pm we retired
and slept surprisingly well on the hard and thin mattresses.
Up at 7am, an hour later than planned. Breakfast
for me was a bowl of plain boiled white rice with milk and sugar,
about as close as I could get to breakfast cereal, and a cup or
two of coffee. The weather was quite cool as the sun was only just
rising. There were 6 of us inn the party: Toby, Rachun and I, Rachun's
worker and two guides who knew the way up to the top. There was
also a small dog with us the size, shape and colour of a fox, who
experienced no difficulty keeping up with us. We set off taking
the same path as yesterday. At first the going was quite OK with
the path clearly defined but as we ascended it became less clear,
more muddy, and with the vegetation closing inn. We climbed up the
muddy path, slipping and sliding, and hanging on to the plants for
support, tantalising glimpses of our goal appearing from time to
time. Up and up we went, around the side of the mountain. It was
very steep in parts and very heavy going. My boots which were rather
for walking than climbing didn't help much and even my small camera
bag began to feel very heavy. After a couple of hours' slog, we
departed from what little path there was, to make a direct assault.
At this point the going became even tougher.
What appeared from a distance to be short grass
- turf even - turned out to be 6 feet high, and studded with huge
limestone boulders the size of cars, and always the dilemma was
to go around or to go over them. Both had dangers, as you couldn't
see one foot in front of the other in either case. It was awful.
The Trachy's got closer and closer but they were absolutely on the
ridge crest and demanded a high price for access. We aimed for one
particular palm whose leaves I could see arising from the far side,
and slowly inched our way towards it. The last few metres was over
the bare rock itself, sharp ridges had been formed by erosion. I
slowly made my way towards the crest and this tree, but as I reached
the edge and looked over, expecting to see a gentle slope on the
other side, my heart stopped - the far side was absolutely sheer,
you could have dropped a brick and it would have been in free fall
for several hundred feet. Terrifying!
The palm tree that I had chosen was growing from
the sheer face of the far side and quite inaccessible. We worked
our way along the ridge in an effort to reach some others, and there
were many to choose from, but each required an individual expedition
of perhaps 20 minutes, and a slow climb up, over, or around the
huge limestone boulders. Not all these were secure, some moved,
some had eroded into huge stones balanced on others. A push would
have sent them crashing down.
Well, what of the trees themselves? It must be said that they were
quite stunning. They were all growing in the most inaccessible locations.
I assumed that all the reachable trees had been cut down for some
purpose, and this was confirmed later by one of the guides.
Firstly, the striking thing about them was that
they had bare trunks, some up to 30 feet tall, and rather slender.
All the leaves were stiff and erect with only a few dead leaves
hanging below the horizontal. The old leaf bases did not adhere
and the trunks had faint rings where the leaves had dropped. Most
noticeable was the fact that the leaf splits were of a very regular
depth. The underside of the leaves was noticeably a grey-blue colour.
The atmosphere up here was very moist, with cloud regularly obscuring
the view - an incredible sight with mountain and Trachy's appearing
and disappearing in the mist. We made our way down from this terrible
crest to a relatively flat area where we had lunch. We then decided
to explore another crest - again heavy going - and as we reached
the palms saw - oh joy of joys - one of them was in full fruit,
with several hundred seeds, hanging in 5 bunches. These innfructescences
did not hang down in the manner of T. fortunei but projected out
at only slightly below the horizontal. Extraordinary!
It was growing, predictably, on the edge of a precipice
that I did not dare to look over. With some difficulty we collected
seeds, as well as samples of leaves, leaf bases, inflorescences
etc., and with these adding to our load, we began the return journey
which I had been dreading.
We had just left the rocky area and had started
on the steep muddy path when it began to rain quite heavily. This
steep path became so slippery with all that wet mud; it was quite
awful; how we managed to get down without breaking our necks I don't
know. I sat on my haunches sometimes and slid down for several feet
at a time. It was terrifying. My clothes were as wet as if I'd fallen
into a pond. My hands and arms were cut by rock and sharp plants.
Down we slithered and slid through the eye-high vegetation, finally
we got down to the muddy section and here we were walking through
ankle deep mud, and my feet were soon wet through. It was just so
awful, and one of the worst experiences of my life. I can't say
just how glad I was to get down to the bottom. Eventually we were
on the original path and heading for home, triumphantly bearing
the spoils of our expedition. What a sight we presented! Mud to
our knees and soaking wet. When we finally reached the base camp,
we had a welcome cup of coffee and climbed aboard the jeep for the
two-hour drive down the mountain. What had been mud on the way up,
had with the rain, become a quagmire, sometimes axle-deep. The going
was awful, there was no shelter on the back of the truck and we
were again soaked through. Down and down we went, past bamboo and
Livistona. Miraculously we made it down safely, with no major problems.
Home by seven, for a shower and a change of clothes,
but no time to rest: we were off out for a celebratory meal, Italian
this time. It was a great and very welcome meal, the Singha was
glorious! Bed at about 10 pm. What a day!
We will study the photographs and material we brought
back and see whether it is indeed a new species or just another
variation of T. fortunei. Whatever the outcome, it was a real adventure,
another piece in the Trachycarpus jigsaw, and I wouldn't have missed
it for worlds.
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