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In Search of Trachycarpus nanus

Unlikely to be confused with any other species as it does not grow a trunk. Becoming rare in the wild due to the predation of goats, it may have to rely on cultivation for its survival.
Martin Gibbons & Tobias W. Spanner
Chamaerops No.35/36, Summer-Autumn Special 1999


Picture: Trachycarpus nanus, habitat Inset: Fruits can be seen at botom left

After a successful expedition to re-locate Trachycarpus takil in northwest India (see “Principes“ 37(1): 19-25), it seemed a natural step for somebody obsessed with the genus to visit China to look for Trachycarpus nanus, that mysterious and diminutive relative of the well known Chusan Palm (T. fortunei), often referred to but never photographed and never brought into cultivation.

It was originally "discovered" (to use that presumptuous term) by Father Delavay in Yunnan Province, southwestern China, in 1887, and was first described scientifically by Beccari in 1910. Since then, it does not seem to have attracted much attention, growing quietly and minding its own business. Here, we thought, was a wonderful opportunity to rescue this interesting palm from obscurity and, possibly, from extinction.

Excited by the prospect of an adventure in a far-off land, we arranged to go in October, when, according to Beccari, the fruits of T. nanus ripen. We were helped considerably in our research by Professor Chen Sanyang of the Kunming Institute of Botany, who gave us precise locations of where he believed our quarry was to be found, and our expedition was based on his suggestions. Thus we set off, taking separate flights from England and Germany and meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, where we prepared for the long journey north.

The first leg was a flight on China Airways to Kunming, where we arrived at midday. Travel in China is not easy. You cannot buy a return ticket on any form of transport; you buy a single, and then buy another single to get back, once you arrive. Since every flight is always full (or the flight is simply cancelled), it is a continuous worry knowing whether you are going to be able to get back once you arrive at your destination. This time we were lucky, and after re-confirming our return flight, we bought a one-way ticket on the overnight bus for Xiaguan, which was due to leave in just a few hours. Unfortunately we were too late to get on the "soft seat" bus so settled for the "hard seat" (second class) and prepared for the worst. In this we were not disappointed.

We set off at 7 p.m. from the Kunming bus station, cleverly designed in a half circle so that all the decrepit buses can back up to it and fill the passenger waiting area inside with dense fumes whenever the ancient diesel engines start to life! Our bus was full to bursting with men, women, children, babes-in-arms and suitcases, not to mention assorted bags, bales and bundles (including two rucksacks) filling every available space. We settled down as best we could and prepared for the ten-hour journey. The fare, after all, was only $4.50. On and on through the night we drove, with the occasional stop for nature's calls, and once, at 2 a.m., at a collection of roadside stalls selling anonymous and unidentifiable food. We felt very smug, having brought instant soup, coffee, and creamer for just such an eventuality.

We duly arrived at Xiaguan at 5 a.m., when it was still dark and cold. Feeling fairly dreadful after the cramped night with only intermittent sleep, we hastened straight away to the bus station where we bought bus tickets for Binchuan, the next leg of the trip. We were lucky in that it was to depart in only 90 minutes, and we spent this time watching the town slowly come to life as the sun rose and drinking steaming mugs of coffee, which never tasted better.

Sharp at 6:30 a.m. we found ourselves on another bus, just as old, just as crowded, but heading out into the countryside now bright with sunshine, and we were able to take our first look around. We soon spotted Trachycarpus fortunei--hundreds of them-- but all had been stripped for the fibers which the Chinese make into brooms and brushes, rain capes, and door mats. The road became more and more bumpy as cobbles took the place of tar, and the landscape became more hilly. It really was very uncomfortable and we were glad when we arrived some three hours later at Binchuan. Here we tried to get tickets for Shazhi, some 50 miles to the west off the main north-south road we were travelling up. It the nearest village to Mount Jizu Shan, where we hoped to find Trachycarpus nanus. However, from what we gathered from the dozens of people who clustered around (none of whom spoke a word of English, and we, not a word of Chinese) that there was no bus today, so we decided to walk outside the town and just hope for the best.

Shouldering our rucksacks, we set off, and soon a small truck stopped and bade us climb in the open back, which bad a single, hard bench down each side. Delighted with our luck, we set off once again, with every hour bringing us closer to our goal. However, if we thought the previous conveyance uncomfortable, this was ten times more so, and we were literally thrown around in the back and had to hang on for dear life as the truck sped and bounced along the cobbled and potholed road. Two hours later, we arrived, bruised and very sore, at Shazhi, where we were delighted to say goodbye to the "boneshaker."

We stood in the middle of this tiny village at the foot of the tree-covered mountain wondering what to do next. We needn't have worried, for within a few minutes, along came three horses led by a man and two women. They indicated that they would take us up the mountain, something of a local beauty spot and a nature reserve. We tied our rucksacks onto one of the horses and mounted the other two. After two "hard seat" buses and the bumpy old truck, our behinds were feeling a little sensitive--a condition not improved by the hard saddles--and soon we were aching as though we'd spent three days on a cattle drive!

We showed the man a photograph of Trachycarpus, and to our delight and disbelief he recognized it and pointed up along the track we were following. After an hour-long, painful ride up a steep trail through thick mud, our guide indicated that we should dismount, and this we were most happy to do. He was pointing in amongst the bushes, and suddenly we saw what looked like a young T. fortunei. We scrambled up to it, feeling somewhat disappointed. Once we saw the erect flower stalks we realized we‘d been wrong: we were looking at Trachycarpus nanus! Our excitement can only be imagined, but even that heartstopping moment was topped a few minutes later when our new friend disappeared into the bushes and came back with an infructescence full of ripe fruit. We felt as though we'd struck oil!

The plants were scattered in the undergrowth, consisting of rather stunted, relatively dense, evergreen forest, on a steep southwest-facing slope, at an altitude of about 2,200 m (Fig. 1). All the plants were very small, barely 50 cm high, and most had only 1 to 3 intact leaves, apparently the result of heavy damage by insects. Trachycarpus nanus could easily be mistaken for T. fortunei here, developing soft, dark green leaves, with leaflets held flat on long petioles in their shady habitat. Only a very few plants carried fruit, though many were seen with old inflorescences and there were quite a few seedlings around.

The surrounding vegetation was comprised laurel-like evergreen trees of many different kinds, some rhododendrons, and a few scattered pines, all densely covered with lichen. Also a small, shrubby bamboo was seen in close association with "our" palms, and, as we discovered later, it was always and only growing where the palms were found. The soil, a heavy reddish clay, was rather acidic, contradicting the idea that they only grow on limestone. In this rather moist mountain forest, 77 nanus grew only on the drier slopes and apparently not below 2,100 m.

After exploring for an hour or two and finding a few more seeds, we made our painful way back down the mountain. There was no transport back to Binchuan on the main road that day, and, as it was getting late, we checked in at a small "hotel" in the village. It had no bathroom or toilets so we took it in turn to shampoo, shave, and shower in a tin bowl of warm water apiece. We then discovered that there was a vehicle going back after all, so we checked out again. The arrangement was the same as before: we sat in the back on two benches, equally uncomfortable, and again we were bounced around for the two-hour trip back to Binchuan on the main north-south road. Here we found another "hotel": no showers, no hot water, and hard beds with sheets that smelled worse than we did. However, we were exhausted after over two days with no sleep and passed the night comfortably enough.

The next morning we woke somewhat refreshed and eager to check out the next locations of Trachycarpus nanus. Again we had no success in finding a north-bound bus, and found ourselves in the familiar situation of being in a strange town, surrounded by dozens of people with whom we had not a single word in common, all apparently giving us advice about how to get to our destination, and all pointing in different directions! Shouldering our way out of this crowd we used a compass to locate the right road and walked out of the town heading north, ever north. Before too long we waved down a "boneshaker" which took us a long way through beautiful countryside. We had the sun on our right and the distant view of Mount Jizu Shari on our left as we sped up this quite good road. We were surrounded by paddy fields of smiling and waving peasants, and arid villages where even the most humble building had traditional oriental upswept roof ridges.

After an hour or so the driver dropped us off and just five minutes later we were in a real bus and on our way again. There are very few foreigners in this part of the world and our appearance at any location, be it hotel, bus, or just on the street, caused great interest. The Chinese are a friendly lot and a smile is always returned with an even bigger smile. The one word they all know is "hello" and we almost got to hate this word, since it was shouted at us countless thousands of times during our stay in that country.
After some 70 or 80 miles, when the landscape became more hilly and barren, we started to see more, and the difficulty lay in deciding when to get off the bus for a closer look. After passing one or two particularly tempting clumps, we alighted, waving goodbye to the other passengers who must have wondered why we were getting off in the middle of nowhere, and walked back to the plants.

We left the road and soon found ourselves surrounded by dozens of beautiful small fan palms. They were growing on steep, stony, dry hillsides above 2.100 m, scattered amongst small, stunted, hard-leaved evergreen shrubs and trees or in pasture with their leaves sticking out from the grass. As the vegetation was very open, most of the palms were growing in only very light shade or enjoying the full sun. We felt that we had found the real thing now. T. nanus looked totally different from those we had seen at Jizu Shari the day before. Not only were they larger and much more attractive, with many perfectly grown, stiff, often glaucous leaves, but they were also absolutely undamaged.

The palms we observed were very variable: They held from half a dozen to over 20 very stiff and deeply divided fan-shaped leaves, 20 to 50 cm long, with 20 to 30 deeply folded leaflets. This is probably an adaptation to the drier climate; those we had seen in the moist forest held the leaflets flat. The tips were slightly bifid. The leaf color varied from light green to an almost silvery blue. The abaxial side, particularly, was clearly glaucous. The petioles were finely toothed and measured from 12 to 25 cm in length. Many plants were found with dried, erect inflorescences, usually one or two, sometimes up to five, slightly exceeding the length of the petiole. Only a very few plants could be found with their stiff, upright inflorescences full with seeds.

Some plants, growing on eroded sites where much of the soil had been washed away, revealed long, curved, horizontal underground trunks, about 5 cm in diameter and up to 60 cm or more long, appearing just like the illustration of Trachycarpus dracocephalus (now regarded as synonymous with T. nanus) that was reproduced in Myron Kymnach's article in “Principes“ 21: 158. These plants must have been very old indeed, as must have the one or two we found with short aboveground trunks, up to 30 cm high, which were fibrous in the manner of T. fortunei.

We found T. nanus to be most common on the north-, west-, and east facing slopes, with only few plants occurring on the drier southern hillsides. In addition, they were extremely local, being entirely absent from neighboring areas that seemed perfect for them. The soil, a stony and sandy but crumbly loam, was slightly acidic to neutral. With the exception of the steepest slopes, all of the land was under cultivation. On much of this land grazed cattle and goats, which, although undoubtedly finding the adult palm leaves too tough to handle, probably found the inflorescences and young seedlings tasty and edible. This would account for the few seeds and total absence of young and juvenile plants. It could be assumed from this that the species is condemned to extinction in the wild here, if not on Mt. Jizu Shan.

We spent several more days in China, hitch-hiking or travelling by bus or plane, and saw many more palms, but nothing could quite equal the excitement of seeing Trachycarpus nanus for the first time. We hope that this unusual, attractive, but little-known hardy palm may soon be distributed around the world, contributing to its survival.

This article was first published in 1993 in “Principes“ Vol. 37, No. 2 and has been edited to fit the format of “Chamaerops.“


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