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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 SW14 7ED
Chamaerops No. 10, published online 23-09-2002

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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 and brush

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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