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Trachycarpus martianus

Very common in the wild, inexplicably rare in cultivation. Until we set our sights on it, that is. Now it's beginning to appear all over the place.
Martin Gibbons & Tobias W. Spanner
Chamaerops No.35/36, Summer-Autumn Special 1999

picture picture

Left: Trachycarpus martianus fruits
Right: Trachycarpus martianus, Marsyandi valley, Nepal

If you would like to see Trachycarpus martianus in the wild, a good place to begin looking is between the covers of Odoardo Beccari's work on Asiatic palms in “Annals of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta.“ Published posthumously in 1931, it is still the most recent full taxonomic account of Trachycarpus, and summarizes, in a very readable form, all that was known of the genus at that time (also see Myron Kimnach, “Principes“ 21(4):155-160). Despite the fact that it was written 80 years ago, Beccari was such a scientist that the information contained in his book is as relevant today as it was when it was published, and is surprisingly accurate in almost every respect.

Under 'Habitat' in the section on Trachycarpus martianus we read, ".....Rather frequent in the Khasia Hills, between 1000 to 1500m elevation, at Lonkerden and at Noughedem, at Moosmai and Manloo; in the latter locality Sir Joseph Hooker wrote that 'it grows on the cliffs' and 'that it may be seen on looking over the edge of the plateau, its long, curved trunk rising out of the naked rocks, but its site is generally inaccessible'......"

Having seen Trachycarpus takil and T. nanus in their natural habitat, our next step along the Trachycarpus trail had to be towards T. martianus, familiar by name, often referred to and in just about every book on palms, and yet extremely rare in cultivation. It exists in small numbers at Huntington Botanical Gardens in California, but is represented in Europe by a single mature specimen in a private garden in the south of France. It seemed time to bring this beautiful tree out of the shadows and into the light.

The Khasia Hills are in Meghalaya Province in remote north-east India. The whole area is 'restricted' and a permit must be obtained before one is allowed to visit. The main town, Shillong, is reached by driving south from Gauhati. To get to Gauhati, we flew from Calcutta on an Indian Airlines airbus. The flight is just 45 minutes, but the ensuing bus journey, though only a fraction of the distance, takes many times longer. This climb up into the hills was a continuous pattern of overtaking lorry after lorry after lorry, all crawling uphill and all emitting great clouds of thick and poisonous fumes. This pollution hangs heavy on the still air in the otherwise beautiful countryside.

Pollution aside, Shillong itself is a most interesting and attractive town. Once a 'hill station' during the British rule in India, it was, and still is, a cool retreat from the heat of the plains. At 1500 metres above sea level the weather in October was extremely pleasant, warm but not hot, the nights comfortably cool. There are many examples of colonial architecture in the town; unfortunately, much of this architecture is not maintained and therefore decaying. The Pinewood Hotel is a wonderful example. Like an old aristocratic lady fallen on hard times, it presents a brave face to the world, but time has moved on and passed it by. These days air conditioning, television in every room, and mini-bars are more important than ballrooms and verandahs and tiffin and punkah-wallahs. However, in the nicely maintained grounds (lawns, flower beds and huge Araucarias), we saw our first Trachycarpus martianus, two tall and beautiful trees.

We were to see many more in the town, often outside public buildings, such as one outside the extraordinary Roman Catholic Cathedral, best described as art deco gone mad. Ward's Lake Garden in the centre of town boasted another dozen. They really are beautiful trees; visibly distinct from all other Trachycarpus, and yet the relationship is clearly seen. T. martianus has a comparitively large crown of regularly divided leaves with a strong, whitish bloom on their lower sides. Most have naturally bare trunks, and the fibres from the old leaf bases cover just a foot or two below the crown; old leaves can be pulled off with a minimum of effort. This however is not a reliable feature for identification since other Trachycarpus species can also shed their fibres naturally, or indeed they may be stripped. Also we came across one or two trees in the garden which had fibres right down to the ground, so there is clearly some variability here.

What is a reliable identification characteristic, however, is the fruit and seed which is the size and shape of a coffee bean rather than kidney-shaped as in every other member of the genus. All of the female trees we saw had clusters of bright yellow fruit hanging down from within the crown. We estimated 6,000 seeds on the six infructescences of a single tree. It is a terrible shame that there are so few young plants. All of these mature trees have been producing seeds in these huge quantities for 50 years or more, so that countless millions of seeds have all gone to waste. Presumably, when these old trees die, there will be no more Trachycarpus martianus in Shillong, and the town will be the poorer for it. Curiously, even officers at the Forestry Department in the town were hardly aware of its existence, even though there were a dozen or more scarcely a minute from their office. They were totally unaware of its existence in the wild.

Having inspected and admired every cultivated tree we could find, we were naturally impatient to look for wild specimens. We rented a car and driver and with 'Beccari' clutched firmly in our hands we set off to follow his directions, written 80 years previously. Heading south from Shillong, we soon cleared the town and drove through an undulating landscape, densely forested with Pinus khasia, gradually changing into a totally deforested hilly plateau, some 1400m above sea leavel. Around 80km from Shillong we reached the town of Cherrapunjee, one time record-holder as the wettest place on earth, with an annual 12 metres of rain. There was certainly no rain on the day that we were there, though, and we had a clear, fabulous, and unexpected view of huge cliffs, disappearing down into the valley below us. Not far from 'Cherra' near the village of Mawsmai (Beccari's Moosmai) there were more such cliffs, which apparently marked the southern edge of the plateau.

In contrast to the hilly plateau across which we had been driving, which was mainly grassland with the occasional Pandanus thicket left in ravines and depressions, the cliffs and lower slopes were densely forested. Though we saw other palms there--at least two species of Calamus, several Caryota - Fish Tail palms - and a curious Arenga-like species we were not able to identify until later--there were no Trachycarpus to be seen. Somewhat disappointed, we decided at Manloo (today spelled Mawmloo) to drive further down the road, which began to descend steeply in hairpin bends. From the map we could tell that the road eventually ended up in Bangladesh, which we could see, covered by lakes, in the blue and hazy distance. As we went down, the temperature went up, and the vegetation became more tropical. More palms began to appear, as well as bananas and tree ferns. We again saw Caryota obtusa,with huge, flatly-held leaves, and a little further down, at around 1000m a.s.l., a second tall, slender Fish Tail palm. This one, probably Caryota maxima, had quite different leaves in a tumbling habit, and was growing together with great numbers of Calamus, later identified as C. erectus, in full but unripe fruit. We were also very pleased to find Wallichia densiflora which perhaps should have given us a clue as to the identity of the mystery palm from before, which turned out to be no less than Wallichia disticha, not previously recorded for the Khasia Hills, with its unique, 2-ranked arrangement of leaves. Palm hunting has to be done carefully here: huge yellow and black spiders as big as your hand sit patiently in webs the size of dinner tables slung between shrubs, waiting for the unwary to stumble in for lunch.

Lest we should end up, like the road, in Bangladesh, we turned round in a tiny village and after having some 'chai' - hot, sweet and milky tea served in a glass - set off back up to Mawmloo.

Delighted with our findings but concerned about the apparent absence of Trachycarpus martianus, we asked the driver to take us to Nohkalikai Falls, just west of Mawmloo. We should not have worried, for a few miles further on, looming out of the mist that was now gathering as the day drew on, we saw them. First one, then many. They were growing on the very edge of a precipice that we could not see into because of the mist. We could hear the distant roar of a waterfall, but frustratingly had to return the following morning to see more.

The sun shone bright and clear as we drove back to the same spot the next day. What we had been unable to see was now revealed: the cliffs on the edge of which we were standing were some 300m (1000 feet) almost straight down. The waterfall we had heard was half-a-mile away at the head of the valley and the water cascaded in free fall for many hundreds of feet, creating a rainbow with the spray. We could look across the gorge to see the identical cliffs on the far side, and huge butterflies were idly casting themselves out into the void. It really was a magical place. At the base, where the cliffs themselves moderate into a steep slope, densely forested with small epiphyte-covered evergreen trees, we could spot Wallichia disticha and that huge, broad leaved Caryota obtusa again, which formed a conspicuous component of the forest canopy.

And then...we saw Trachycarpus! By the dozen and by the hundred! They were growing, just as Sir Joseph Hooker had reported, out of the bare rock, on ledges and in cracks on the south-facing cliffs, absolutely inaccessible. Even a mountain goat would need climbing gear. It occurred to us that we were undoubtedly standing on the very spot where Sir Joseph had stood 80 years previously. The rock itself was dark, soft and crumbly, and consisted of baked quartzite sand. Combined with this was not limestone as we had expected: the soil was sandy and strongly acidic with a pH of only 4-5.

The Trachycarpus were beautiful! The original trees we had spotted from the car were much closer; indeed, by leaning out slightly over the brink we could actually touch them, though to collect seeds and herbarium specimens would have required some ingenuity with poles and wire and secateurs, as well as a head for heights.

Their trunks were growing straight out, or sometimes curiously bent away from the cliffs. Although a few younger plants had their trunks entirely covered, the coarse, loose, light brown fibres of the leaf bases persisted only just below the crown in adult trees, and under this a slender, smooth trunk was revealed with clearly visible, closely-spaced leaf scars. The young petioles and unexpanded leaves were covered in dense white tomentum. The leaves themselves were large, appproximately 120cm across, medium green in color above and strongly glaucous below. They were very regularly split to about half way, into sometimes more than 75 stiff, erect segments, shallowly bifid and acute at the tip, presenting a distinctive, indeed unmistakeable, silhouette. A unique feature of Trachycarpus martianus leaves is the small transverse cross-veins which run from one longitudinal leaf vein to another. These cross veins are much clearer than on other Trachycarpus species and are apparent even on seedlings and 100-year old herbarium specimens. Petioles as well as inflorescences (up to eight on a single tree) were considerably shorter and more erect on these trees than on the cultivated plants we had seen in Shillong and gave the palms a much more compact and wind-resistant appearance.

Though Trachycarpus martianus seems doomed through lack of interest in the town, its future in the wild seems as solid as the rocks on which its grows. Because of the inaccessibility of its habitat it is safe from those who would cut it down for firewood or for building, and it is equally safe from goats, the scourge of so many endangered palm species. Long may it remain so.

This article was first published in 1994 in “Principes“ Vol. 38, No. 2 and has been edited to fit the format of “Chamaerops.“


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