Trachycarpus on Parade

A timely summary of this popular genus which will hopefully remove the confusion which surrounds it. A comprehensive listing of all 8 species, with notes on each.
Martin Gibbons, c/o The Palm Centre
Chamaerops No.24, Autumn Edition 1996

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Photo: 4 are better than one: Multi-headed Trachy (Photos by Sammy Au, H.K.)

In the recent issue of 'Hardy Palm International', the journal of the Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society, there was an article about Trachycarpus which illustrates the confusion that - even now - abounds about this popular genus. I sat down to write a reply and guessed that our readers would likely be just as interested. So here it is. Im not sore If you can plagiarize your own work and hope that the Pacific North westerners will forgive me for going to press first.

Joe Herbert's article on Trachycarpus in the recent issue of HPI has prompted me to write a brief letter about the genus, and to list all the species with their correct names. This will form the basis of a more comprehensive article which will be submitted to 'Principes' in due course, but so often I see mistakes, and so many people are obviously confused about the different species I think it would be helpful to pre-empt that and let you'all have a preview.

As you know, Tobias Spanner of Munich, and I have carried out many field trips studying this genus in India, Nepal, China, Thailand and Burma and gained an enormous amount of knowledge about it. We have found three new species, one of which was published in 'Principes' and two more are in press. Here are what we see as the eight species of Trachycarpus.

There are two Trachycarpus seed shapes, which provide a natural division within the genus :

A. Those with Reniform (kidney-shaped) seeds

1. Trachycarpus fortunei. Easily recogmzed, widespread, popular and much loved species from China, but so widely cultivated there, it seems impossible to determine its precise origin, or to believe that there are any truly wild specimens left.

2. Trachycarpus takil. From a few locations in northern India, very rare now in the wild as most trees have been cut down for the fibre. Enormous confusion caused by a simple photograph of T. wagnerianus in James McCurrach's 1960 'Palms of the World' which was captioned T. takil. Confusion still reigns, especially in the USA. T. takil is very similar in appearance to T. fortunei, and only subtle differences separate them. lt seems that the difference is more geographical than physical, the populations are a very long way from China. Very rare in cultivation too. Sorry, but if you think you may have a T. takil in your garden, you almost certainly don't. I don't think any seeds have come out of India between 1887 when some were sent to Beccari in Florence (his description was based on one of the resulting plants) and a couple of years ago when Toby and I sent back a few thousand from Naini Tel where they are cultivated. Imagine our feelings when, after all our care and hard work, those we sold to a seed dealer were re-distributed as 'Trachycarpus takil/ wagnerianus'! Maddening! Almost certainly the most cold-hardy in the genus, and the fastest-growing. See Principes 37 (1) 1993.

3. Trachycarpus wagnerianus. Easily identified species with small, very stiff leaves. Grows as tall as T. fortunei, with as thick a trunk. There is some doubt as to whether it deserves its species status: the leaf shape is about the only difference between it and T. fortunei (there are some subtle floral differences, too), and it is not known in the wild. That does not mean it was never known in the wild, but there are no records. Just as hardy as T. fortunei, prettier, and considerably more resistant to wind, the curse of the Chusan Palm.

4. Trachycarpus nanus. Not much doubt about this species as it is the only one not to grow an above-ground trunk (or at most, just a few inches) . From Yunnan Province, China, and under great threat from goats there which eat not the plant, but the newly emerging inflorescences. Only recently introduced into cultivation, there are no mature plants anywhere in the world outside Yunnan See Principes 37 (2) 1993.

5. Trachycarpus 'oreophilus'. This is a new species from northern Thailand, yet to be scientifically described (in press). The wild trees grow on wet and windswept mountain ridges and thus have a somewhat untidy appearance. In cultivation and out of the wind, they should look fabulous. Recently into cultivation, a few hundred seeds have been distributed. See Chamaerops (9) 1993 and (17) 1995.

6. Trachycarpus priaceps. New species from Yunnan, China, described in Principes April 1995. Distinctive because of the waxywhite backs to the leaves (see photo below). Not in cultivation anywhere, some seeds were erroneously distributed under this name earlier this year. Sorry, if you think you have it, you don't. When it does get into cultivation, it will be a winner! See Principes 39 (2) 1995 and Chamaerops (18) 1995.

B. Those with oval-and-grooved seeds (like a coffee bean)

7. Trachycarpus martianas (includes T. khasianus). From Nepal, and Meghalaya State, India. Probably also northern Burma but outof-bounds to foreigners until the wretched and despicable administration there falls . Cultivated in only a few botanic gardens (Huntington and Sydney for example) in the world, but locally very common in the wild, though largely inaccessible. Distinctive features are the (usually) bare trunk, the seed shape, and the even splits in the leaf blade. lt has quite a different look from T. fortunei yet frequently one sees photographs of a bare trunked T. fortunei captioned as this species. Thousands of seeds distributed over the last couple of years. See Chamaerops (19) 1995 and Principes 38 (2) 1994.

8. Trachycarpus 'sikkimensis'. We have to keep those inverted commas for a little while yet as this new species has not yet been scientifically described (in press) . Cultivated commonly in Kalimpong, West Bengal, India, and also growing wild there, it is a splendid palm with big, leathery leaves and a bare trunk. lt is very hardy to cold, fast-growing and will be just fabulous as an ornamental once it is more widely available. Prolific seeder, many thousands of seeds and seedlings have now been distributed around the world. (See Chamaerops (20) 1995).

That's the full complement. But what about the suckering species I hear you ask? In my opinion, it doesn't exist. lt is not uncommon for a Trachycarpus fortunei to appear to develop a side shoot but this is in fact the main growing point emerging from the side of the plant because the way up is blocked for some reason, invariably the result of some damage. Once this establishes itself, the original main stem will die back. If it is removed, the plant may well go on to produce another, but it is still the one and only growing point seeking a way out and up. A customer of mine removed 4 such as he wanted a single trunk! As soon as one was allowed to develop, the main stem died. Others that appear to be clustering are simply the result of several seeds being planted together. On every such specimen I have examined, including the type specimen of var. surculosa, all the trunks are the same age (a bit of a giveaway that) and invariably both sexes are represented, impossible with a truly clustering palm. However, I would be delighted to be proven wrong.

I have heard of several examples of forking Trachycarpus fortunei. Again this is likely to be caused by damage to the growing point. I recently received some photographs of a specimen in China with no less than four trunks!

I hope this will serve to clear up the confusion surrounding what is essentially a clearly defined and easily differentiated genus."

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