Trachycarpus princeps - The Stone Gate Palm

Ah, T. princeps! Perhaps the most beautiful in the genus, also the least accessible, and least likely to come into cultivation. Well, something to dream of for the future, and the pictures are nice!
Martin Gibbons & Tobias W. Spanner
Chamaerops No.35/36, Summer-Autumn Special 1999

picture picture

Left: Trachycarpus princeps - habitat
Right: Trachycarpus princeps, leaf underside

The chance sighting of a single line in a Chinese plant book led to perhaps the most exciting discovery of all, along the 'Trachycarpus Trail.' The book, “Chinese Endangered Plants,“ was published in Chinese and so quite incomprehensible to us. However, all the references were in English, or at least used the Roman alphabet, and of course all the Latin plant names were understandable. We were doing research on Trachycarpus martianus, and although there was no record of its occurrence in China in any of the other books we consulted, old and new, this book listed and described it. This seemed strange to us since it was not known to occur in China; why should it appear in a book of Chinese plants?

We arranged to have the entry translated into English and when it was done we were able to read what the Chinese author had to say about it. The entry began with a description of the palm - nothing strange here - and ended rather disappointingly with this: "The specie is native to central and eastern Himalayas and Burma. According to record there were some found in western and north-western Yunnan, but so far there is no specimen." And that might have been the end of it, but something nagged. What was this 'record' and how could we find out about it? It seemed an impossible task.

Then, some time later, we were re-reading the accounts for the hundredth time when a line in the references caught our eye. Amongst all the Chinese characters was this: "Hand.-Mazz. Symb. Sin. 7(5): 1360. 1936". The numbers were obviously pages or chapters and 1936 the year, but what or who was Hand. Mazz.? And could that 'Sin' stand for 'Sinica' ie. China? Was this the old record? The answer came, as so many did, from the library at Kew. 'Hand.-Mazz' turned out to be an abbreviation of Dr. Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti, an Austrian botanist who made some explorations in south-east Tibet and north-west Yunnan between 1914 and 1918. He published his findings in a book called "Symbol' Sinic'" in German in 1936, a photocopy of which was kindly lent to us by the Library of the Botanical Museum in Berlin (Handel-Mazzetti, H. 1936. “Symbolae Sinicae: VII. Teil Anthophyta.“ Verlag Julius Springer, Wien). Here‘s what we found:

"Trachycarpus martianus...N.W. Yunnan. In the subtropical zone of the Burmese monsoonal forest on cliffs of crystalline limestone, in the Salween-gorge above Chamutong until below Niualo, 1725-1900m,....and from here replanted in the village of Sitjitong.

Flowers or fruits are not on hand. From my memory and a photograph sent by Dr. J. Rock, these approximately 7m high trees have stems of at least 20cm diameter after the leafbases have fallen, which develop a short tuft only below the fresh leaves. These are wax-white below......."

The trail was starting to warm up!

Additionally, we came across another book, "Naturbilder aus Südwestchina" ('Portraits of Nature in South West China'), by the same man. Whereas the first was more of a scientific work, this was more of a diary, and filled in many gaps in a very readable fashion (it is now also available in English). On page 242, under the title, "To the Irrawaddy Upper Course" we read:

"In the evening, I reached Niualo, a Lissu village as you can tell by the name, the most northerly of all, and I was welcomed in a friendly manner, with presents.
From there it was finally not far any more to the Salween [river]. We descend, reaching the subtropical rainforest just below 2200m.......and a distance on bare rock leads us to the slope of the valley itself, from where we quickly descend through sparse pine forest to Sitjitong, a scattered village, 3km north of Chamutong.

"The Salween comes here from Wuli in the northeast, breaking through the band of crystalline limestone, through which, in the gorge of Chamutong, it is quickly returned towards the east, making up for this error in its NNW-SSE course.

"Everywhere, this hard rock shows as steep cliffs, in the lower gorge as enormous pillars, 600m high, one of which forces the path onto an artificial high wall in the river itself. At high water level, this route is flooded, and the only way to reach Chamutong is above, over the ridge. Whereas there are still xerophytes, such as Schefflera delavayi, here brownish and felt-like, found on the sandbank stretching along the river below Sitjitong, the gorge itself is characterized by sub-tropical opulence again. Huge lianas, like the new Mucuna coriocarpa with thick trunks and 50cm long pods, climb high up into the Sloaneas.....between them flourishes the definitely tropical Asplenium nidus, developing large nests with tongue-shaped, 70cm long leaves. Rather xerophile again are the many small epiphytic orchids, none of which unfortunately was in flower any more, and the palm Trachycarpus martiana, which grows stately stems, mainly on the other side of the river, almost inaccessible on the cliffs.

"I crossed the flat scree of Chamutong, around which the Salween is forced towards the eastern slope in a gentle bend, via the shortest way, below the main village, as I was in a hurry, and [being delayed by] the officer there was what I needed least. That he had already gone insane and died from opium and schnapps, of which he consumed 8-10 rice bowls a day, I did not know at the time. And so I came to Dara, a village on the slope, inhabited mainly by Tibetans......."

Exciting stuff! Limestone pillars 600m high - that would be something to see indeed. After a great deal of searching, the map room at Kew provided the location of Chamutong, and we were delighted to find Handel-Mazzetti's original map there. The village turned out to be in extreme north-west Yunnan, almost at the point where China, Tibet and Burma meet--a restricted or 'closed' area of China, certainly not open to the casual tourist. The Salween River itself rises in the Himalayas then flows south just to the east of the north/south border between China and Burma. Finally, a thousand miles later, it discharges itself into the Gulf of Martaban, in Burma, at Moulmein. So far, so good. But what of HM's collections and - intriguingly - that photograph?

Dr. Dransfield suggested that as Handel-Mazzetti was Austrian, his herbarium collections were likely to be in Vienna, and this indeed proved to be the case. Our friend there, Thomas Baumgartner, discovered them, in good condition, at the Institute of Botany where they had been gathering dust for 70 years. An official request kindly made by Dr. Dransfield brought them to England and it was with great excitement that we visited him at Kew to see them for ourselves.

A glance at the leaves was enough to make one thing immediately very clear. Though they were certainly Trachycarpus they were certainly not T. martianus. Most exciting of all was the photograph, taken by Dr. Rock and referred to by Handel-Mazzetti. It was a habitat photograph and although at first glance it appeared not to show any palms at all, closer examination under a microscope revealed dozens of them growing on a sheer cliff face on the far side of a fast flowing river - the Salween, or as it is called in China, the Nu Jiang ('Angry River'). They looked like big trees, with thick trunks and with big crowns of fan-shaped leaves, not unlike T. fortunei. However, they seemed to have bare trunks, and as they were growing on such inaccessible sites it was inconceivable that they had been stripped by man, as are the vast majority of Trachycarpus in China, for their useful fibres. The whole thing was becoming very intriguing indeed, and we began to suspect that we were looking at a new, undescribed species of Trachycarpus. As is so often the case, the only way to solve this puzzle was to visit the palms, and this we resolved to do.

You have to have a good and valid reason to visit 'closed' areas of China, and even then, it's not always possible to get permission to do so. We were told that because our interest was botanical, we would have to apply first to the Institute of Botany in Kunming, who, on our behalf, would apply to the relevant authorities to try to obtain permission to visit the area where our palms grew. Our contact at the University was Professor Chen Sanyang, the self-same person who had written the T. martianus entry in “Endangered Plants,“ and something of an authority on the palms of China. He was as intrigued as us by the possibility of a field trip to this remote area with a view to re-locating this 'lost' Trachycarpus.

We applied without delay but it took 10 months before the permission finally came through. In the intervening period we exchanged dozens of faxes and letters, and sent photocopies of our passports together with full details about ourselves and our purpose. It was arranged that the professor would accompany us, and we would travel to our destination in a rented jeep.

In October 1994 we flew to China, staying in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province. On arrival we checked into an hotel, and the professor and his interpreter called round to introduce themselves. We were up and ready at 7am the following morning when we were collected by the small jeep in which we were to spend many hours and to travel many miles. First, however, there were more permissions and travel documents to obtain so we spent an hour or two driving around Kunming from this office to that. Finally, we were off!

We travelled along a good road for about 45 miles (80kms) to begin with. After that it deteriorated somewhat but was still not too bad. The driver was fast, but careful and confident and we kept up a good speed. We stopped for lunch (chicken with ginger, noodles, pork and rice) and arrived about 6.30pm at Xiaguan where we would spend the night. The following day was similar: an early start, a break for lunch--this time at Wayao--and then on through Liuku, across the Salween bridge where we turned north, and on up to Lubenzhuo. As darkness set in, we arrived at Fugong where we stopped for the night. Early the next morning we set off once more, continuing north along the Salween.

The entire journey was along the river, sometimes high above it, sometimes perilously close to the rushing water, but almost never out of its sight. We arrived at Gongshan at 10.30am and stopped for an early lunch. At 1.30 we set off again and by 3pm had arrived at the village of Binzhongluo, some 600 miles (1000 km) from Kunming. On the way we travelled along deep gorges the river had worn through the ages. It was quite impressive. We were introduced to the head of the village, and with him went on a short walk to the 'Shi Men Guan' ('Stone Gate'), the local name for what Handel-Mazzetti had called the Chamutong Gorge. Here he‘d described the river as 'breaking through the band of crystalline limestone'. Within an hour we were there, and through binoculars saw our first Trachycarpus, just as he had promised!

There were certainly many Trachys there, but also something of a canyon between our vantage point and the Stone Gate itself. As such,we could not get closer to them without a major detour. As it was starting to get dark anyway, we decided to call it a day and head back to the village. We celebrated with bottles of the local beer and speculated on what tomorrow might bring.

The next morning we were up at 6.30, before sunrise and even before cock-crow! After breakfast we left with a local guide and headed off in the same general direction as yesterday, but then descended to river level, following a clear path through farms. The river itself is jade green in colour and quite smooth though rather fast-flowing. Soon we saw Trachycarpus growing on the two high, sheer faces of the opposing cliffs.

Together, the sheer cliffs with the river at the bottom created a thousand foot deep crack in the mountain range, somewhat less than Handel-Mazzetti's '600m' (2,000 feet), but very impressive all the same. There were hundreds of palms and through binoculars we could see just how beautiful they were. At a distance they seemed very close in general appearance to Trachycarpus martianus, with erect, slender stems, apparently bare in some of the tall, older plants, and beautiful, spherical crowns, and we could easily understand how Handel-Mazzetti had misidentified them. The tallest seemed to be about 30ft (9m). Most were on the opposite bank, but soon we had the opportunity to examine one more closely as one had recently fallen down near our path.

It had about 5 feet (150cm) of trunk, covered with closely attached, fibrous leaf sheaths of a rather coarse texture. The exposed upper part of the sheath was short and divided into numerous, individual coarse threads, upright at first but strongly reflexed with age, as is the case with the spines formed by the leaf sheaths of Trithrinax acanthocoma. Certainly this was very different from Trachycarpus martianus, and even more so from T. fortunei. However, perhaps the major difference from all other Trachycarpus, and certainly the most stunning, is the fact that the underside of the leaves is pure waxy-white. There were no flowers or fruit so more positive identification would have to wait for a while. We took some photographs and measurements, collected some herbarium material, and then continued down the path, now close to the river. Our guide told us through his interpreter that no palms were to be found north of here, so they were only growing in this one tiny area.

Since 95% of the palms were growing on the opposite, west-facing bank, we had to find some way to cross the river. Fortune must have been smiling on us as we soon came across a dug-out canoe moored at the river's edge. Our guide was dispatched to the nearby village to negotiate a price to ferry us across. While waiting for him to return, we cooked a simple lunch of packet soup on the pebbly river 'beach,' just a stone's throw from hundreds of these beautiful palm trees. The more we looked, the more we saw. What an idyllic spot!

After an hour or so, our guide returned with 4 or 5 Lissu men who had agreed to take us across. We went one at a time, with two rowers, one in front and one astern. It was quite tricky because of the speed of the water, fast-flowing even though it was the dry season. It was a question of paddling slowly until the fast water was reached, then paddling rather quickly so as not to be carried too far downstream. Soon we were assembled, still dry, on the far side and set off towards the palms. The river bank here was composed of pure crystalline limestone; in other words, it was white marble. Over the centuries the river had smoothed and sculpted it into sensuous curves and shapes worthy of Michelangelo. We struggled around the headland and soon we were among the palms. By far the majority were growing on the sheer cliff face, absolutely vertical and absolutely inaccessible. Bearing in mind our experiences with other palms in habitat, we were quite delighted by this fact; it means that they are quite safe from either man or goat. There were a good number growing in the forest where the cliff moderated into a more gentle scree slope at its base, so these could be reached with minimum effort. It was towards these that we made our way, scarcely able to contain our excitement.

For the next couple of hours we went from tree to tree, admiring, photographing, measuring, comparing and generally having a good time. There were many palms to choose from, each more beautiful than the last, with the white undersides of their leaves giving them a very special appearance. We agreed that these were definitely the most beautiful Trachycarpus that we had ever seen.

Their rather open, spherical crowns were attractively arranged and consisted of around 22 regularly divided, semi- to 3/4 circular leaves. After dying, they form a small skirt below the crown before the blade rots and drops off. The slender petioles often stay attached to the trunk for much longer, and this, together with their pale colour, gives the impression from a distance that the trunks are bare. In fact, many of the tall, old plants do shed their leaf sheaths to reveal a ringed, grey trunk.

Many plants carried old, dry inflorescences or infructescences but, to our great disappointment, none of the accessible trees carried either fruit or flowers. Whether they fruited earlier than other Trachycarpus or whether it had simply been a bad year (dry?) we did not know, but it was terribly important to find at least some seeds in order to determine if they belonged in the fortunei group (reniform seeds) or the martianus group (oval with a groove). Finally, after grubbing around in the dirt at the base of a tree with a recent infructescence, one of the Lissu came across just two fresh and a couple of empty, old seeds. They were kidney-shaped, meaning that the trees belong in the former group.

We were not really surprised to find that many of the accessible palms had been either stripped of trunk fibre, or had had some of their leaves harvested. A few had even been cut down, as the trunks may be useful for building purposes, and perhaps the 'cabbage' is edible. But, by and large, we felt that the locals were sympathetic and there was certainly no wholesale destruction as we had seen in, for example, Trachycarpus takil in India. Even if every accessible tree were to be cut down, this would still leave the vast majority of the population, some 400 or 500 mature plants in total. We feel that their future is quite secure.

Additionally we were very pleased to see a good number of seedlings, indicating that the trees are reproducing well. This is a very good sign. The seedlings themselves were very pretty with regularly split leaves in the manner of T. martianus seedlings which they closely resembled, but with the same waxy-white backs to their leaves as their parents.

After a very happy time amongst these beautiful palms we regretfully took our leave, and one at a time, as before, crossed the Nu Jiang in the dug-out canoe. With many backward glances at the Stone Gate, we departed for the village and the long drive back to Kunming.

The cost of getting up to the site where these palms grow was not insignificant, not only in financial terms, but also in terms of physical effort, time, and patience. Despite this, the pleasure we had in rediscovering Handel-Mazzetti's palm made it all very worth while. Unfortunately, because of the remoteness of the site and the paucity of seeds, it is unlikely that this beautiful tree will get into cultivation. But it is there, and will continue to be so, just waiting for other dedicated palm enthusiasts to discover it for themselves.

Although we were unable to find any flowers, the other material collected by Professor Chen and ourselves is sufficient to show the Stone Gate palm to be clearly distinct from all other species of Trachycarpus.

Trachycarpus princeps Gibbons & Spanner

Solitary, very lightly armed, dioecious palm to about 10m tall; trunk erect, slender, densely clothed in closely apressed, persistent, fibrous leaf-sheaths, around 22cm in diam. or bare, ringed, 13-16cm in diam.; leaves 18-26, palmate, marcescent leaves few, sometimes forming a small skirt below the crown, petioles often persisting; leafsheath fibrous, relatively coarse, robust, about 45cm long, abaxially densely covered in pale brown, woolly tomentum; leafsheath appendages approximately 10cm long, very finely divided, upright at first, later strongly reflexed; petiole slender, arching, about 80cm long, 0.8cm high and 1.3cm wide, slightly convex above, triangular below, strongly glaucous, very finely toothed along the margins; hastula shallowly triangular, 1cm long, regular, crested; leafblade, semi- to 3/4 orbicular, 60-80cm long from the hastula, 90-115cm wide, dark green above, wax-white below, regularly parted for about half its length into 45-48 stiff, linear segments, tapering towards the apex from their broadest point; central segments 3-3.5cm wide at the middle, lateral segments gradually more narrow and shorter, apex acute-notched, shortly bifid.

Inflorescences few, solitary, interfoliar, slightly erect to horizontally arranged; male inflorescences about 50cm long, branched to 4 orders; peduncle short; prophyll about 18cm long, very broad; peduncular bract one, around 25cm long, very broad, slightly tomentose abaxially; rhachis bracts 3, similar to ped. bracts; rachillae 1-3cm long, fine and very densely branched; female inflorescences about 75cm long, branched to 3 orders; peduncle about 20cm long, peduncular bract one, tubular, 30cm long; rhachis bracts 2, similar to ped. bract; rachillae short, 2-10cm, fleshy. Flowers not seen. Infructescence bright yellow when fruit are ripe; fruit small, on short stalks, slightly reniform to almost oval, wider than long, 0.8cm long, 1.0cm wide, 0.75cm high; epicarp very thin, black, with a white bloom; mesocarp approximately 0,1cm thick, spongy-fibrous, coated in a very sticky substance; seed reniform, 0.6cm long, 0.85cm wide, 0.55cm high; endocarp pale beige, very thin, very slightly crustaceous, sand-like layer on a red-brown skin; endosperm homogenous with a deep lateral intrusion; embryo lateral. Germination remote-tubular, eophyll simple, narrow, plicate, wax-white abaxially.

Distribution: China, Yunnan, Nujiang county, 3km NW of Bingzhongluo on the banks of the Nujiang, on the two almost vertical, bare marble cliffs of the Shi Men Guan (Stone Gate) and below the cliffs in mixed, evergreen monsoonal rainforest on a black, very humose, alkaline soil (pH 7.5-8); 1550-1850m a.s.l.

The specific epithet (L. princeps, a prince) refers to the stately bearing of this palm and the majestic way it looks down from its lofty position on the sheer cliff faces.

As there is no recent taxonomic treatment of the genus Trachycarpus, relationships of T. princeps will be dealt with in a conspectus of the whole genus, which will appear in a later publication.

This article was first published in 1995 in “Principes“ Vol. 39, No. 2, and has been edited to fit the format of “Chamaerops.“


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