Trachycarpus latisectus - The Windamere Palm

'Broad leaf segments' is the uninspiring translation of its name. However, it's a beautiful species, difficult in its early years, but well worth persevering with.
Martin Gibbons & Tobias W. Spanner
Chamaerops No.35/36, Summer-Autumn Special 1999

picture picture

Left: Trachycarpus latisectus, Kalimpong, West Bengal
Right: Trachycarpus latisectus, leaf detail

It was Henry Noltie of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, who first alerted us to the existence of a strange Trachycarpus in Darjeeling, India. He had been in the area during the Edinburgh Sikkim Expedition in 1992 and had noticed a pair of these trees in the garden of the famous Windamere Hotel. He took photographs and collected herbarium specimens, but our later examination of these at Kew provided no clue as to the identity of this palm, other than that it appeared indeed to be a species of Trachycarpus.

Several possibilities came to mind: Could they be some kind of hybrid? Or were these the 'real' Trachycarpus martianus of Nepal? (For further reference see Noltie, H.J. 1994. “Flora of Bhutan“ Vol. 3, part 1. Edinburgh and Spanner, T. W., H. J. Noltie and M. Gibbons. 1997. ‘A new species of Trachycarpus (Palmae) from West Bengal, India,‘ “Edinburgh Journal of Botany“ 54:257-259). Further, were those we had encountered the previous year in Meghalaya, India (see Gibbons, M. and T. Spanner. 1994. ‘Trachycarpus martianus,‘ “Principes“ 38:89-94.), actually 'Trachycarpus khasyana' as they were originally described by Griffith in “Palms of British East India“ (1850), and, as Griffith believed, a separate species?

There was only one way to find the answers to these questions and that was to visit the palms to see for ourselves. Thus, in November,1994, during our 'Trachycarpus Asia' expedition, we simply decided to take a side trip to see if we could throw any light on the identity of these mysterious palms.

First, we spent a week in Nepal where we saw many Trachycarpus martianus, both in the wild and in cultivation. It was clear from a close examination of these palms that Trachycarpus martianus and T. khasianus are indeed one and the same species, so the theory could no longer hold water. Having answered one of our questions, we headed off for Darjeeling to see these unidentified palms for ourselves.

Darjeeling is a most lovely town, an old hill station from the days of the British Empire, still with many colonial buildings and much architecture intact, though in many cases, fading. We were travelling by taxi, having started from Biratnagar on the Nepalese border, and after passing through the town of Siliguri, we began to climb. This hilly road is accompanied from bottom to top by the narrow gauge railway line of the 'Toy Train,' a true miniature locomotive with carriages that brings both passengers and goods to and from Darjeeling. The journey, though fun, is rather long, taking about eight hours. Our Formula One taxi driver, however, took just two.

We reached the Windamere Hotel at 11pm with high hopes as we had read the many accolades and complimentary remarks about it in our guide book ('best porridge in India' for example). Though we had no booking and the hotel was full, a comfortable room was somehow found for us, and we were supplied with hot-water bottles as at this altitude, 2200m above sea level, it was distinctly chilly, with a slight mist worthy of the lake from which the hotel takes its name. Notwithstanding this, we couldn't wait for the 'boy' who carried up our bags to go so we could explore the grounds and the Trachycarpus waiting for us there.

If we had any expectation of being able to identify these two big palms at a single glance, we were much mistaken, and we stood there for some time in the dark, examining them by torchlight. Although a litte wind damaged, they were very robust and quite stately looking trees with smooth grey trunks and large leaves, resembling those of some Livistona more than any Trachycarpus we knew. Eventually we had to admit that we were stumped; we simply knew everything that they weren't. Further inspection by daylight the following morning after breakfast (the promised porridge, eggs and bacon) only served to confuse us more and we continued to be at a loss as to what they could be.

During our brief stay in this attractive town we saw many other Trachycarpus, both in the town itself and in the rather disappointing and much neglected Lloyd Botanic Gardens. These were, without exception, T. fortunei, and despite T. martianus having been reported as growing here (for further reference see Shri Dar, 1994. ‘Hunting Out The Trachycarpus martianus,‘ “The Palm Journal“ 118:26-30), a thorough search revealed not a single tree.

We left Darjeeling still scratching our heads, and drove to Gangtok in Sikkim, and from there down to Kalimpong. On the way we saw many Phoenix rupicola and Wallichia disticha, both 'special' palms to us which we were delighted to find.

On arrival in Kalimpong, another pleasant town, we checked in at the Himalayan Hotel and our surprise can only be imagined when, in the garden, we saw another of the Windamere palms! The answer to the conundrum came in a flash: this was a new and undescribed species of Trachycarpus, quite distinct and different from all others. In the following few days we were to see many more, all, it must be said, in cultivation, generally in gardens in and around the town. They were indeed splendid trees with slender trunks to about 8m tall, occasionally even taller. Their numerous, comparatively large, leathery and, for a Trachycarpus, shallowly divided, nearly circular fan-leaves are carried on long, robust, unarmed petioles and form an upright, open crown. After dying, the leaves hang down in a small skirt below the crown and eventually drop, together with the coarse, fibrous leafsheath, revealing a smooth, light grey trunk. The leaf is also most notable for its rather wide segments producing a slightly convoluted leaf profile. Some of the segments in the leafblade, particularly the lower ones, are fused for nearly their entire length, in groups of 2 to 4. Many of the female trees carried bunches of oval, flattened, yellowish-brown and eventually blueish-black fruit. The seeds resembled those of T. martianus, albeit slightly larger, proving the two to be closely related.

The Trachycarpus from this area were certainly not missed by the early plant hunters and have been mentioned by various authors, though always under the name of T. martianus. We asked ourselves, how could the unique characteristics, which distinguish them from T. martianus from early age on, have been missed, when they had been seen by eminent botanists both in the field and later, as herbarium specimens? Under Trachycarpus martianus, Beccari tells us in “The Annals of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta“ (1931) that “...stunted plants have been encountered by Gamble on the Rissom (actually Rissisom; mountain) near Dumsong beyond Darjeeling, at about 1970m, and (by Brandis, in 1879) on the Dumsong Hills at about 2400m.“ Further, Beccari says that “C. B. Clarke collected ... a young plant of Tr. martiana in Sikkim at Rungbong at about 1,200m elevation.“ Of these two latter collections Beccari states that “the leaves of the young plants are of a rather herbaceous texture (and) have few segments.“ Of his own collection, Gamble, in “A Manual of Indian Timbers“ (1902) writes, “The writer has once found small plants of what is probably this palm (T. martianus) on Rissoom, near Dumsong....“ It seems clear that these collections were not of T. martianus at all but were of the same species as we had now seen in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and the fact that it was new and different had been missed. However, when reading between the lines, it does seem that perhaps they were not 100% convinced of the true identity of the plants they had collected. Later examination of some of their herbarium specimens now at Kew confirmed our suspicions: they were identical to those we had come across in the field.

Whilst we were delighted to find this palm in so many gardens in Kalimpong and were certain about its identity, we felt we really had to try to locate a population in the wild before formally describing it as a new species. This was to take another twelve months, during which time we searched high and low in Sikkim and in the Kalimpong district for these palms.

Just a week before our return trip to India in October, 1995, a small population had been found some 20 miles east of Kalimpong, growing on the slope of a steep valley in the Dumsong range of hills near where it had originally been recorded (as T . martianus). We travelled back, looking forward with great excitement to what was to be a highlight of the trip.

We had allowed ourselves considerably more time than in the previous year and before our visit to the palms' habitat we spent a day examining in greater detail many of the palms in the town, becoming increasingly optimistic about their attractiveness and suitability for cultivation in other temperate climate areas of the world. Then, finally, the great day arrived and we set off by jeep to see the palms in nature. We travelled east for some 15 miles, then turned off the 'main' road onto a narrow and extremely bumpy track through villages and rice and millet paddies. Finally we could drive no further and proceeded on foot. It wasn't long before we saw the first of a good number of Trachycarpus palms, loosely scattered over a rather steep grassy slope and cliffs overlooking the Relli River, always inhabiting the most precipitous places (Photo 8). Whereas the day before the weather had been cool and misty, today there was hardly a cloud in the sky, and the leaves of our palms were brightly glistening in the mid-morning sun. The palms themselves seemed rather stunted compared with those we had seen in cultivation and their habitat much degraded. We soon learned that the entire slope had once been densely covered with monsoonal forest, of which only a few crippled trees now remained. It needs no great imagination to realize that the palms' habitat used to be much more humid and calm, protected, at least in part, under a canopy of larger trees. Without this canopy the site seemed too dry for them to sucessfully set seed and for seedlings to establish. Even with this grim reality, it was a most exciting place to visit and we were soon scrambling up and down the slope, taking photographs and measuring the palms. After a happy day we returned to Kalimpong, and then, regretfully, back to Europe. The whole area, including Sikkim proper, is a rich one for palm enthusiasts and we will certainly return.

The following description of this new species was first published in “The Edinburgh Journal of Botany“ and is reproduced here in a slightly adapted version to bring it to the attention of a wider audience. Growers and enthusiasts might like to note that seeds and seedlings of this species have been distributed as T. “sikkimensis“ in the recent past (see below):

“Trachycarpus latisectus“ Spanner, Noltie and Gibbons

Solitary, unarmed, dioecious fan palm to abt. 12m tall; trunk slender, erect, bare, light grey, obscurely ringed, (10-)14-17cm diameter, clothed in persistent, fibrous leaf-sheaths for 0.6-2m below the crown. Leaves (8-)15-25, forming an erect, open crown, some leaves reflexed, marcescent leaves numerous, forming a small skirt below the crown; leaf-sheath fibrous, 30cm long or more, coarse, abaxial surface covered in pale tomentum, broadly triangular towards the apex, not breaking down into threads; petiole (50-)120-140cm, slender (abt. 2.5cm wide and 1.2cm high near the middle), flat above, slightly keeled towards the leaf-blade, broadly triangular to rounded beneath, margins smooth, sharp-edged, base very thick and robust, abt. 3.8cm wide and 2cm high, covered in pale tomentum; hastula less than 1cm long, broadly triangular, slightly crested; leaf-blade palmate, 3/4 to completely orbicular, 65-85cm long from hastula, 110-135cm wide, leathery, dark green above, with thin whitish tomentum along the folds, slightly glaucous beneath, with clearly visible cross veinlets, nearly regularly divided for less than half its length into 65-75 stiff, linear segments with two inconspicuous longitudinal folds on either side of the midrib, tapering towards the apex from their broadest point, arranged at slightly differing angles, producing a slightly convoluted leaf profile; central segments 65--80cm long, 3.5--5cm wide at middle, with a prominent midrib beneath, lateral segments gradually more narrow and shorter, to abt. 21-45cm long and 1 cm wide, the more lateral segments joined for nearly entire length in groups of 2-4, apex of central segments acute, notched, of lateral segments acuminate, bifid for 1--3cm. Inflorescences 3-6, solitary, interfoliar, branched to 3 orders. Male inflorescence 60-100cm long, spreading; peduncle short; prophyll 2-keeled, apex acute; peduncular bract single, keeled, base tubular, inflated distally, abt. 7cm wide in the distal portion, apex acuminate; rachis bracts 3, similar to peduncular bracts; rachillae short, abt. 2mm diameter, yellowish; flowers globose, 2.5-3mm diameter, yellowish, arranged in groups of 2-4 on short pedicels; sepals ovate-triangular, joined into a fleshy base for lower 1/4; petals nearly orbicular, minutely triangular-tipped, 3 times as long as sepals; stamens 6, slightly exceeding petals; filaments ventricose; anthers broadly ovate-saggitate, blunt; pistillodes less than half the length of the stamens. Female inflorescence 100-150cm long, stiff, spreading; peduncle abt. 50cm long, oval in cross-section, 4.2cm wide, 1.8cm high; prophyll 2-keeled, abt. 30cm long, apex acute; peduncular bracts 2, keeled, long, tubular, abt. 4.5cm wide, apex acuminate; rachis bracts 3, similar to peduncular bracts; rachillae 5-18cm long, 1-2mm diameter, yellowish-green (in fruit); flowers globose, abt. 1.5mm diameter, yellowish, usually in pairs, subsessile, sepals briefly connate into a distinctly swollen base; petals oblong-orbicular, twice as long as sepals; staminodes 6, slightly exceeding petals; carpels with a very short, conical style, stigma punctiform. Fruit shortly stalked, oblong-ellipsoid, flattened on one side, 16-18mm long, 11-13mm wide; epicarp thin, yellowish-brown when ripe, turning bluish-black; mesocarp thin, fibrous; seed oval-oblong, flattened or shallowly depressed and grooved on one side, 13-16mm long, 8.5-11mm wide; endocarp very thin, with a crustaceous sand-like layer of light brown, small, irregular scales; endosperm homogeneous with a deep, lateral intrusion. Germination remote-tubular, eophyll simple, plicate, to 2cm wide, glabrous.

The specific epithet 'latisectus' (with wide segments) was chosen for this species‘ unusually wide leaf segments, a characteristic through which it usually can be easily identified and distinguished from other members of the genus.

Distribution and Conservation Status:
INDIA: in the foothills of the Sikkim Himalayas in extreme northeastern West Bengal (Kalimpong) and southern Sikkim, between about 1200m and 2440m elevation (Gamble 1902, Cowan 1929, Beccari 1931).
In Sikkim and two locations in West Bengal, the palm has apparently not been recorded for at least 60 years and could not be relocated to date. It is under immediate threat of extinction in the wild with only about 50 plants surviving in what may be its last remaining site on a steep, deforested slope on rocky soil at Mirik Busty on the Relli River between 1300 and 1400m, where it is unable to reproduce. Unless immediate action is taken, the chances for its survival in the wild seem bleak.

Venacular names and Uses:
The following local names have been recorded: Talaerkop, punkah, tarika, purbung, bhotay kucho. The stems have reportedly been used in construction.

Trachycarpus latisectus is a frequently cultivated ornamental in Kalimpong and environs and its future in cultivation there seems fairly secure. Young plants are commonly encountered.
Being cold-hardy as well as fast and easy to grow, it has good prospects of becoming a popular ornamental for temperate and subtropical regions. Seeds from cultivated trees around Kalimpong have been distributed to many growers around the world during recent years as Trachycarpus “sikkimensis,“ a provisional name of no botanical standing, relating to the area of its historical distribution being floristically and geographically known as the 'Sikkim Himalayas'.
Although many growers and enthusiasts may have become familiar with the name T. “sikkimensis“ in the meantime, we have decided for a number of reasons not to use this name as the specific epithet of this new species and hope we will not have added too much to the confusion already surrounding this genus.
Note: There is no recent taxonomic treatment of the genus Trachycarpus (but see Beccari 1931, Kimnach 1977 and Gibbons 1996). Relationships of T. latiscetus will be dealt with in a conspectus of the whole genus, which will appear in a future publication of “Palms“ (formerly “Principes“), the Journal of the International Palm Society.

We would like to express our appreciation to Henry Noltie of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, co-author in our formal description of this species in the “Edinburgh Journal of Botany.“ Very special thanks are due to Dr. John Dransfield of the Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium, Kew for his unfailing enthusiasm and encouragement and for his critical review of this manuscript.

This article was first published in 1998 in “Principes“ Vol. 42, No. 1 and has been edited to fit the format of “Chamaerops.“


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