The Thailand Trachycarpus

Your editor takes a trip to Thailand to investigate the occurrence of an unusual species of Trachycarpus.
Martin Gibbons, The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West, London SW14 7ED, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 9, published online 23-09-2002

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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 our quarry.

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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