A Himalayan Phoenix

Ganesh, perfect and generous host to us during our travels in north-east India, has been doing a little research in his own 'back yard' - the Himalayan foothills.
Ganesh Mani Pradhan, Ganesh Villa, Kalimpong, 734301 W. Bengal, India
Chamaerops No.23, Summer Edition 1996

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Photo: Phoenix humilis var: typica, burnt by fire

Ever since Martin Gibbons and Toby Spanner hit Kalimpong in Autumn of 1994 (and again an Autumn of 1995) my eyes have been on the lookout for Palms during travels in these Darjeeling and Sikkim Hills. The gigantic Caryota (referred to by them as C. 'Himalaya'), thickets of Wallichia densiflora and the Trachycarpus 'sikkimensis growing in our garden have suddenly gained respect. Not to speak of the large Cycas pectinata which threw out a male inflorescence this year. Hopefully, some of the other large plants yet to flower will turn out to be females and we can get a pollination programme in action. The Trachycarpus sikkimensis story is another thing, of course, and Martin and Toby will no doubt have a detailed write-up in a future issue of Chamaerops.

During this period of time I've located a few Livistona jenkinsiana, Livistona chinensis and Phoenix rupicola growing in private gardens in Kalimpong and many Trachycarpus sikkimensis in private backyards. The four Livistona jenkinsiana growing in the premises of a mission estate in Kalimpong must be really old plants. I am trying to locate old photographs of Kalimpong to see if these plants can be sighted in the background so that the plants can then be dated with a fair amount of accuracy. Out in the forests, I have tracked down Pinanga gracilis, Wallichia disticha and Wallichia densiflora and many species of Calamus including Calamus acanthospathus, Calamus erectus var. schizospathus Calamus leptospadix and Calamus flagellum along with cool growing Plectocomia himalyana.

Early this year, in February to be precise, I was driving along the Teesta Valley in Sikkim. February is a rather dry and cold month and even in the valley in the foothills winter can be cold. I saw, from a distance, a patch of feather leaf fronds and they looked hike young plants of Phoenix rupicola However, the habitat was not typical of Phoenix rupicola which prefers more stony cliffs. These fronds were jutting out from plants growing as an undershrub in a lightly forested area above the highway. Climbing up the hillside, and on closer examination of the colony, I found that these were Phoenix humilis var. typica. The trunks were blackened by annual forest fires and many plants had their inflorescences emerging out of their bracts. These few plants were just the tip of the iceberg. I carried on down the highway and a couple of minutes later, up on the slope, about 50 ft from the road, I came across seven large plants of Phoenix humilis var. typica in full bloom. Here, the plants exhibited their fawn/brown natural colour stems with remains of the leaf bases and coarse matting. I climbed up the slope to take some close-up photographs and when I reached the spot - voila, there was this scene, not quite visible from the road, that just took my breath away. As far as I (eye) could see, up the hill slope, were hundreds and probably a couple of thousand of plants of Phoenix humilis var. typica about 2 to 3 ft tall, their graceful green fronds covering the entire hillside.

The Darjeeling and Sikkim hills are home to innumerable species of flora ranging from the tropical in the foothills to the alpine in the high mountains right up to the snowline. More than 4000 species of flowering plants are recorded. Twenty two species of palms are listed in the Trees of North Bengal by A.M. and J.M. Cowan, a handy reference work published in 1929. In Palms of British East India by William Griffith which was published in 1850, there is no record of Phoenix humilis but he does mention Phoenix pedunculata, a variety of the type, from the hilly regions of South India. Ethelberg Blatter in Palms of British India & Ceylon (1926) records three varieties of Phoenix humilis In the Flora of British India, Sir J. D. Hooker also describes three varieties of Phoenix humilis The first is Phoenix humilis var: typica found between 1000 and 5000 ft from Kumaon in Northwest India eastwards to the foothills of Darjeeling & Sikkim, Assam and the Khasia Hills. The second, Phoenix humilis var: lourierii found in Assam, the Khasia Hills, and Manipur in Northeast India and further east towards Burma and Cochin China (South China). The third, Phoenix humilis var: pedunculata found in rather high altitudes of about 6000 ft elevation in the Western Ghats and the Nilgiri hills of South India. The plants under reference, according to published works, are Phoenix humilis var: typica. We shall await the work of Ms. Sasha Barrow of Kew on the genus Phoenix.

The Teesta and the Rangit are two major rivers that flow through the valleys of Darjeeling and the Sikkim Hills. Forests along these river banks and slopes of these river valleys host a number of palm species of this area such as Phoenix rupicola, Pinanga gracilis Licuala peltata, Livistona jenkinsiana, Wallichia disticha and Wallichia dens iflora and many species of Calamus, Phoenix humilis var: typica can also be quite commonly found growing on these slopes but the habitat in which they seem to thrive as the forested areas, mostly under the canopy of Sal (Shorea robusta) plantations.

Shorea robusta is an important timber species of the Northeast Indian region. Termite attack and decay due to high humidity of the summer monsoons is resisted by the hard wood of mature trees and it is the timber of choice for door and window frames, roof rafters and parlings. If one could afford it, one could build an entire house with Sal timber to last an eternity! Extensive plantations of Shorea robusta are found in the hot foothills, many of the vast stands replanted by the Forest Department in their afforestation programme. Phoenix humilis var. typica can be found in many of these primary and replanted Shorea robusta forests.

The average height of Phoenix humilis var. typica is about 6 to 8 ft but I have come across old specimens up to 12 ft high. Mature stems grow up to 12 inches in diameter. When young, the base of the trunk is quite bulbous and can be easily mistaken for Phoenix acaulis which I am yet to locate in the wild. Books describe Phoenix acaulis as a dwarf plant with a very stunted almost caudiciform stem and leaves just 2 to 3 ft. long. This would be a gem of a Phoenix when located. The arching leaves of Phoenix humilis var. typica are about 6 to 9 ft long with 3 to 4 grouped leaflets along the rachis. Basal leaflets are spiny and short. The inflorescence arises from among the bases of developing leaf sheaths. I have found small plants about 3 ft. tall, with squat bulbous stems in bloom and with seed. The fruits are green when immature eventually turning a deep yellow at maturity and finally a glossy black when ripe. One distinguishing character of Phoenix humilis var. typica is the very long and flattened peduncle and rachis, holding fruits well above the crown of the plant. Infructescences holding a large number of fruit are bent down with the weight. The peduncle and inflorescence rachis are a bright yellow colour. From a February flowering the seeds are fully ripe during May.

The habitat area of Phoenix humilis var: typica in the Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalayas is never exposed to snow or frost. Winters are dry and often the undercover of these forests is set on fire in February for clearing and regeneration. In such areas, Phoenix humilis var. typica withstands these fires leaving the plants with black stems. New leaves are regenerated quite fast. Occasional winter rains keep the plant going and the summer monsoon period is extremely wet and humid. This is the main growing period. No waterlogging ever occurs around the roots. Autumn weather conditions are bright and sunny with the receding monsoons providing occasional rains till around late October.

The top soil where Phoenix humilis var. typica grows is extremely rich in humus provided by the decaying undergrowth and leaves and other vegetable matter shed by the overhead canopy of trees. Plants growing in exposed situations on steep slopes often have their fronds drooping along with the incline of the slope. On many such open growing colonies, I have found Cycas pectinata, old specimens and younger generations, keeping Phoenix humilis var. typica company. I have located a solitary male specimen of Phoenix humilis var, typica growing in a garden in Kalimpong at 4,300 ft. elevation where it flowers regularly each February. This cottage and garden, now a Government administered Tourist Lodge is a wee bit of Scotland with typical British Estate Garden layout. The property was once the summer home of a jute baron trading and living in Calcutta. This is an old plant about 8 ft. tall which proves that it can grow in cooler areas.

Phoenix humilis var. typica could be tried out as a garden plant in temperate areas. With its comparatively short growth habit and graceful foliage, it should prove to be a good indoor plant too. Talking with villagers near various habitats of Phoenix humilis var. typica I found no immediate threat to the populations from human use of any part of the plant. In some forests, villagers cut the fronds of low growing plants for fodder along with other grasses growing in the vicinity. Mature plants are not harvested by felling for any economic use. Children gather maturing fruit from easily accessible populations to chew as a treat. Monkeys too seem to find the seeds a great delicacy.

So I can happily report that Phoenix humilis var. typica populations in the area under survey in the Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalayas are a happy and growing lot!

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