The Trachy-strippers of Kunming
You may ha ye heard tell about the fibres of
Trachycarpus fortunei being used for brushes and brooms. This article
lays the facts bare, and reveals all.
Martin Gibbons, The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West, London
Chamaerops No. 10, published online 23-09-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Clockwise from top left: 1. Strippers at work!
Kunming Lakeside Garden. 2. The fruits of their labour laid out
to dry. 3. & 4. Finished articles made from the fibres: Rain-cape
China, the home of Trachycarpus fortunei, has literally
millions of them. They grow in a semi-wild condition all around
the rice paddies and are a common feature in towns throughout the
area where they grow. No one is quite sure where exactly they originated,
rather like the Coconut, because they have been distributed over
such a huge area of the country by the hand of man, even across
to Japan where at one time it was believed they occurred naturally.
The reason they are so widely grown is because of
the fibre which grows on either side of the leaf base, wrapped around
the trunk like a crownshaft, and which gives the trunk its familiar
hairy look. What you are looking at when you see such a hairy trunk
is the top edge of dozens of fibrous 'cylinders', all wrapped around
the trunk, and each one enveloping most of the one above it. The
fibre is cut off in one piece with a sharp knife and provides a
perfect square about 40cm X 40cm, with the leaf base proper running
down the middle of it. Each leaf base yields one square, so it is
easy to imagine how many such squares there would be on a mature
tree. Contrary to popular belief the fibre of which these squares
consist is not 'woven' although the two layers do run at right angles
to each other. They are merely overlaid, but appear as woven cloth.
It is extremely durable, indeed, it can be seen still on 100-year
old trees, and in times gone by in China it was braided into ropes
used to moor junks, so it was obviously rot-proof even under water.
That it is an extremely useful, not to say valuable
commodity is clear from the fact that every single Trachycarpus
palm in China is stripped down to the bare trunk. Even quite young
plants have had the treatment and it appears to have no effect whatsoever
on the health or strength of the tree, which carries on growing,
producing more fibres. When Toby Spanner and I were in China last
year, we came across the strange sight of the 'Trachystrippers'
at work, in the public garden in Kunming, Yunnan Province There
are many T. fortunei in the garden (almost the only palm there in
fact) and it seems that every few years the strippers arrive (perhaps
they have the concession!) and get to work. It can be seen from
the photographs the quantity of fibre that is produced in just a
day or two. It is used commercially in the production of many and
various items. We saw brushes and brooms on many a market stall,
and doormats in one of the hotels in which we stayed, but perhaps
the most bizarre use is in the manufacture of a kind of coat or
cape. I could not do better than to quote the description written
by the traveller and plantsman Robert Fortune, whose name this palm
bears, taken from his book, "Three Years' Wanderings in China",
published nearly 150 years ago, in 1847:
"Another strong fibre is obtained from the
bracts of a palm tree cultivated on the hillsides of Chusan (Island)
as well as in similar situations in the province of Chekiang (now
Zhejiang). These articles serve the purpose to which they are put
extremely well From the bracts of this palm tree the natives of
the north make what they call a So-e, or garment of leaves, and
a hat of the same material, which they put on during rainy weather;
and although they look comical enough in the dress, still it is
an excellent protection from wind and rain."
We saw many such natives working in the fields under
the protection of these capes, but quite why they would choose to
wear them instead of a plastic equivalent I can't quite understand.
They are extremely heavy, especially when wet, and rather smelly
too, so I can't see any advantage. However they are undoubtedly
popular and they are certainly green'. But I doubt they'll catch
on in Paris.
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