Interview with the Editor
Your editor, interviewed by Imtiaz McDoom Gafoor,
talks about his adventures in palmland in the first of two chats
about the world of palms and his part in it.
by Imtiaz McDoom-Gafoor, London, UK
Chamaerops No.37, Winter Edition 2000
Left: Martin Gibbons collecting palms in Ecuador
in his own, unusual way.
Right: Ceroxylon alpinum: the fabulous andean Wax Palm.
We are approaching the 9th anniversary of the formation
of the European Palm Society and so I thought it would be a suitable
opportunity to interview our editor. On a recent visit to the Palm
Centre I interviewed Martin and we explored such subjects as the
European Palm Society, The Palm Centre, and of course his many palm
expeditions abroad which have introduced so many new palms into
cultivation. In this issue we cover most of the exciting new palms
and other exotic plants, and how they were discovered and made available
to cultivation. In the next issue we look at the challenges of palm
exploration, the formation of the European Palm Society, the Palm
Centre and other matters.
IMG: You are associated with introducing several
new species of palms into cultivation. Lets examine some of
these starting with the genus Trachycarpus. What prompted you to
get involved with Trachycarpus and where is it found?
Martin: Investigating Trachycarpus was a spin off
of starting the Palm Centre. My first love is hardy palms and it
was discovering which species could be successfully grown outdoors
in the UK that prompted my explorations. I knew there were several
other species of Trachycarpus that were written about but there
seemed to be very little in cultivation. I developed a passion for
Trachycarpus and over the next seven years I went on several major
expeditions to try and find the different species.
Trachycarpus grows in a broad band across the foothills of the Himalayas
from west to east. There is T. takil in the extreme west in western
Nepal and northern India, and T. nanus at the other end. The genus
grows across Nepal into north-east India, Sikkim, Burma, Thailand
and China. I also suspect that there are more, undiscovered species
of Trachycarpus where the Himalayan mountains taper out, over towards
IMG: Who do you travel with?
Martin: Most of my trips were done with Toby Spanner
who has a nursery similar to the Palm Centre, in Munich in Germany.
Our passion for Trachycarpus developed simultaneously.
IMG: What is your favourite Trachycarpus species
Martin: My favourite species would probably be the
most obscure of them all, which is T. princeps, which grows where
China, Tibet, and Burma meet. It is the most difficult to get to
and is in a politically very sensitive area. We were able to find
and name it but we were only able to find two seeds despite a thorough
search. It will be a long time before it comes into cultivation
because of the remoteness of the area.
IMG: Why is Trachycarpus princeps not in cultivation
outside of its native area?
Martin: It grows in an extremely remote and difficult
place which is absolutely off limits to foreigners. The first time
we tried to get to it we were picked up by the police and returned
in no uncertain fashion to civilisation. Although we subsequently
went on an officially sanctioned expedition when we were able to
find it, we havent been able to get back since. The other
reason is that they seem to seed so sparingly. We found only a few
seeds although at that time of year you would have expected to find
lots. I also know two or three Chinese people who have gone back
since and they also report the paucity of seeds, so I think it will
be a long time before they come into cultivation.
IMG: How does princeps differ from other species
Martin: It is unique because it has a waxy white underside
to the leaves. You can literally scrape it off with a fingernail.
It is very distinctive in that respect. It grows on the banks of
the Salween River, now the Nu Jiang river (Angry River),
which starts in the Himalayas and empties out into the Gulf of Martaban
in Burma. It grows in the most spectacular setting: its as
though there was a range of mountains and a giant took a huge axe
and cut a great gouge in the mountain with the river now running
through the bottom. These almost sheer rock faces are 700 or 800
ft tall and T. princeps grows on one of these rock faces.
IMG: What is the most cold hardy of the Trachycarpus
Martin: Takil is probably the most cold hardy species.
Its from central northern India where it grows on a hillside
near a place named Pithoraghar, which these days is a trekking resort.
It grows at a high altitude, about 2400 m, where it is said to be
covered in snow from November to March and consequently should be
an extremely hardy palm. It was 5ūC when we were there in October
and it gets progressively colder through November onwards, until
it is bitterly cold in the depths of winter. Old records describe
them growing in great clumps and rows, but we only found seedlings.
We learned that all the adult trees had been cut down in recent
years. To think that in the space of fifty years it has gone from
hundreds and hundreds of mature trees down to a few hundred seedlings
is a terrible tragedy.
IMG: Which species would rival the ubiquitous fortunei
in time and why?
Martin: Fortunei has two serious rivals. The first
is wagnerianus because the leaves are so stiff, its fast growing
once it gets to a reasonable size, and its much more wind
tolerantwhich is the main weakness of fortunei. I think it
will rival fortunei as soon as it is more widely available. The
other one is T. latisectus which we found in north-east India. That
has much broader leaf segments than fortunei, it has a bare trunk
which to my mind is more attractive, its very fast growing,
and has glossy leaves. Its such a beautiful palm and I think
when it becomes more widely available it will rival fortunei.
IMG: How hardy is it likely to be?
Martin: No test has yet been done on its cold hardiness,
as there are none growing outside the Kalimpong area, but I believe
it will probably be almost as hardy as fortunei.
IMG: What prompted you to look for it?
Martin: A botanist from the Edinburgh botanic garden
told us about two strange Trachycarpus palm trees that were growing
at the entrance to the famous Windermere Hotel in Darjeeling. We
were on a trip in India and decided to go up there and take a look
at them. We thought we would be able to identify them at a glance,
but in fact we didnt have a clue as to what they were. They
were certainly Trachycarpus. We knew everything that they werent.
They certainly werent takil, they werent fortunei. We
wondered whether they could possibly be hybrids. We decided to leave
that particular problem for a while. Later we were in Kalimpong
in north-east India and were staying in the Everest Lodge, and there
was one of these trees in the garden. It was so much like the other
two we realised immediately that it must be a new species. We decided
to call it latisectus which means broad segment and
refers to the broad segments of the leaves.
IMG: What is the difference between Trachycarpus
martianus Khasia Hills and Nepal forms and
where have you seen them?
Martin: They are very similar, one being slightly
finer, and the Nepal form being slightly hardier as it grows at
higher altitudes. They are both actually the same species although
at one time they were considered different species. One was called
Trachycarpus martianus, the other Trachycarpus khasianus. They have
since been lumped together and I think for good reason. They grow
at a fairly high altitude. The one that grows near Shillong in Meghalaya
province is on the side of a very steep valley and is shrouded in
mist for half a day which gives an indication of its requirements.
Again it is in an absolutely beautiful setting; you drive along
a plateau and then this very steep valley begins. You can look down
into this valley and at the far end you can see Bangladesh, which
the whole plateau overlooks. The other species, martianus Nepal
form, grows not far from a popular trekking route in Nepal. The
route goes around Annapurna and you can see the palms from this
trekking route. So we went along with the other trekkers with our
rucksacks and climbing gear, but whereas they went along the path
we headed up into the hills. We climbed up these rock faces and
after two or three hours we were in an area where there were just
hundreds and hundreds of them. They were in an incredibly beautiful
area; these palms choose really beautiful places in which to grow,
or maybe they simply make the area beautiful.
IMG: Trachycarpus oreophilus is yet another new
species that you have discovered. Where is it found?
Martin: Oreophilus grows on a mountaintop in northern
Thailand. The mountain is called Doi Chiang Dao, and it grows near
the city of Chiang Mai which is the second city after Bangkok. It
had been known about for years and for a long time it was considered
to be a species of Livistona. Then it was decided it was Trachycarpus
martianus and was given that name in the absence of herbarium material.
We went up there two or three times, though its a killingly
difficult 4 hour climb. Its very wet, it rains, the sun comes
out, it rains again, the sun comes out. So all the time you are
soaked and then you are dried out and soaked again and dried out.
Again, its an area of unbelievable beauty. You get up to the
top and you can see all these Trachycarpus growing on limestone
cliff tops, in little crevices, on ledges and they get absolutely
battered about by the wind so nobody knows what they look like in
cultivation in a sheltered position. A close inspection revealed
them to be a new species. We named them oeophilus which
means cloud-loving. There are none anywhere in the world
apart from those which came from our original collection. When the
plants we have collected have started to grow they will show their
true colours and Im sure they will look quite distinctive.
IMG: Where have you seen the best example of Trachycarpus
growing in cultivation outside of its native Asia?
Martin: Without a doubt, around the lakes in Switzerland
and northern Italy. They reach perfection and look better than they
do in the wild. In fact, palms generally look better in cultivation
than they do in the wild. The Trachycarpus around the north Italian
and Swiss lakes look absolutely gorgeous, almost like a different
species. I put that down to the absence of wind and also the high
humidity caused by the lakes. I have never seen a single fortunei
in England that looks half as good as most of the fortunei in northern
Italy and southern Switzerland.
IMG: What do you think about the natural distribution
range of the genus Trachycarpus in general, and could there be other
undiscovered species out there?
Martin: As I said, Trachycarpus grows in a band from
west to east which tapers out in China and towards north Vietnam.
It is also worth mentioning that several species we found grow in
very tiny areas. Princeps immediately comes to mind. It just grows
in one tiny area just a few hundred square metres. Takil is the
same, as is oreophilus. It just grows on one cliff top and, although
it could be a couple of square miles, it is still very local. In
all of these cases if you didnt happen to know they were there
you could easily pass by and not even notice them. This makes me
optimistic that there are more species to be discovered especially
in a place like north Vietnam which hasnt had a great deal
of botanical exploration. Another example is T. latisectus. In the
wild it just grows on one tiny cliff face and there are perhaps
forty individual trees and thats it. When they are gone it
will be extinct in the wild, but if you didnt know they were
there you would certainly not stumble across them by accident. Since
we have found several species in such tiny areas, it is logical
to assume that there are other tiny areas that we have missed. I
also think there are other species of Trachycarpus in the hills
of northern Burma, an area that hasnt been explored properly
for over fifty years and even then not terribly well. But I will
never go there whilst that terrible regime is in power; as soon
as it falls, however, Ill be on the first plane to Mandalay.
IMG: What is Plectocomia himalayana, where have
you seen it and what conditions does it grow in?
Martin: Plectocomia himalayana is a very interesting
palm. It grows in the Kalimpong area of West Bengal in north east
India. It is a climbing palm, a rattan, grows to about 80 ft and
snakes itself up into the treetops. It doesnt have a very
thick stem, maybe about an inch in diameter; is very spiny; and
the leaf rachis, the central stem of the leaf, is extended into
a cirrus which is a long whip-like leaf extension covered with backward
facing spines. It is using this that enables the palm to climb up
into the treetops. They are in an area that gets frosted every year,
growing at about a 2500m elevation. I am optimistic that they can
grow outdoors in this country, particularly in a sheltered area
such as London or the south west of Britain, based on the natural
environment in which they grow. They dont grow in an area
with hot temperatures, but rather mild summers, cool winters, and
plenty of rain.
IMG: What are your recollections of visiting the
high Atlas Mountains of Morocco? What were the conditions in which
Chamaerops humilis variety cerifera was growing?
Martin: We heard about Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera
from a customer who had seen it growing in the Atlas Mountains.
Prior to that it was only represented in collections in very small
numbers such as the south of France and Valencia botanical garden
in Spain. We went up to the high Atlas Mountains of Morocco and
what completely surprised us was that we found not hundreds, not
thousands, but tens of thousands of examples of Chamaerops
cerifera. Sometimes they covered the entire landscape from
horizon to horizon in a sea of blue. The extraordinary thing is
that they are so common in the wild yet so rare in cultivation with
no real explanation. We were able to collect hundreds of thousands
of seeds, and our friend there is still collecting seeds for us.
We have distributed them around the world. In fact, the seeds in
the wild have a very poor germination largely due to the attention
of goats, rats and other animals. Also the harshness of the climate
means only a small percent germinate, but the seeds are good, and
when brought into cultivation, and given ideal conditions, they
germinate well. As regards cold hardiness of the climate, they grow
up to very high altitudes up to 1700 m where it is bitterly cold
in winter, scorchingly hot in the summer, and very dry in the dry
season. They grow well in such extremes of climate but adapt well
to more temperate conditions.
IMG: Do you consider it a variation of the green
leaf Chamaerops humilis or a distinct species?
Martin: I think they deserve species status but it
really has to be examined scientifically and compared with all the
other forms in a very variable genus and perhaps DNA analysis done
in order to prove that it is different from the rest. There are
tall Chamaerops, short ones, ones with thorns, others with no thorns,
blue ones, green ones, silver ones, suckering ones and solitary
ones, so it could be said that it is just another variation in a
very variable genus. However, we think that the differences are
so marked, particularly the pale blue colour which is on both sides
of the leaves, unlike some which just seem to have blue colouring
on the back of the leaves, which is unique in Chamaerops. Also the
speed at which it grows is much slower than the regular green form.
The thorns are black, which is also unusual. It needs a major reassessment
of the genus to unravel it.
IMG: Caryota Himalaya has generated
considerable interest amongst palm growers. What sort of environment
does it grow in and is it a high altitude form of Caryota urens
or a distinct species?
Martin: We first saw it growing in Darjeeling and
were reliably informed that it snows there every year, so it became
apparent this fishtail palm has some cold hardiness. We have subsequently
seen it growing widely in that part of the worldnorth-east
India, Kalimpongand are currently testing it for cold hardiness
in Britain. Regarding whether it is a new species or not, Im
not sure. It is grown in California where it is referred to as Caryota
urens mountain form but the whole Caryota genus is in
a mess and in need of a major revision. It is different in appearance
from many of the other Caryota but it would be inadvisable of me
to say it is a new species or just a form of another species. It
may indeed turn out to be C. maxima or C. ochlandra, which are the
most likely contenders.
IMG: Some of the highest altitude palms in the
world grow in South America. What are the most cold hardy palms
youve seen in the Andes and where?
Martin: The most exciting palms I have seen in the
Andes are without doubt Ceroxylons. Whether they are truly cold
hardy or not is yet to be determined. I suspect their main attribute
is that they grow in cool conditions rather than that they are cold
hardy. There is little point in having a cold hardy palm that will
tolerate very low temperatures but only produces one or two leaves
a year here in the summer, like Rhapidophyllum hystrix or Sabal
minor. They are very hardy but only produce one or two leaves a
year in our climate. In my opinion, it is better to have a palm
that, in a bad winter, will have to be protected but actually grows
well in our cool summers, and several species of Ceroxylon fit this
bill. Another cool tolerant palm is Parajubaea cocoides, an absolutely
beautiful palm. It grows in Quito in Ecuador in some numbers and
in some of the inter-Andean villages and is another palm species
not known in the wild but only in cultivation. It probably has similar
hardiness to the Ceroxylons, perhaps -5ūC. There is also another
species, Parajubaea torallyi, which grows in Bolivia at over 3000
m and is considered somewhat hardier. It is not yet in cultivation
in Britain but we are working on trying to obtain seed. It would
be suitable for the sheltered garden in large cities.
IMG: What was Panzihua in China like? What conditions
does Cycas panzihuaensis grow in?
Martin: Panzihua city must be the most polluted city
on earth. It is a coal mining area with dozens of steel smelting
factories that spew waste products into the local rivers. It was
like a scene from hell! We saw bright green rivers, jet black rivers,
milky white rivers and rust red rivers and all this pollution running
straight into the Yangtze river. A yellow fog would descend on the
area as the pollution was so bad. In the middle of all this, in
the public park, there grows Cycas panzihuaensis which apparently
is one of the most numerous cycads in China. We did not see it in
the wild but we saw a large number of cultivated specimens in the
parks and gardens of Panzihua city. Superficially, from a distance,
it looks vaguely like Cycas revoluta but the leaves are more upright
and it has a thicker trunk. It is said to be extremely cold hardy
and fast growing. Some of the Chinese growers that we talked to
said it grows two feet of trunk in five years, which is astonishingly
fast for a cycad.
IMG: Musa hookeri is a relatively unknown banana.
Where does it originate and what is its climate like?
Martin: Musa hoookeri, or Musa sikkimensis as it should
now be called as this is its correct botanical name, is a very hardy
banana which grows to 2100 m. It is probably as hardy as M. basjoo
but has a different appearance with a distinctive liver colour to
the back of the leaves. It, too, grows in the Kalimpong area. I
am beginning to sound like Kalimpong is the only place we ever go
to! The reason is we know a family there who are really keen on
palms and they have done some major botanical work for us in the
hills and valleys around Kalimpong.
IMG: Do you know of other high altitude bananas
from the mountains of China?
Martin: There is another unknown banana that we found
in the Yangtse valley in China. It was growing at 2800 m, where
it gets bitterly cold in the winter, and this plant produces edible
fruit. We brought back a few corms to London and we are attempting
to grow plants from those and hope to introduce it into cultivation
in the future. There is another banana species called Ensete wilsonii
which is said to grow in north Vietnam. We have not been able to
get seed of it but are expecting some in the next few weeks. It,
too, should be very hardy.
To be continued in issue #38