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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. Let’s 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 Vietnam.

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 and why?

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 haven’t 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 of Trachycarpus?

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: it’s 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 species?

Martin: Takil is probably the most cold hardy species. It’s 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, it’s fast growing once it gets to a reasonable size, and it’s much more wind tolerant—which 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, it’s very fast growing, and has glossy leaves. It’s 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 didn’t have a clue as to what they were. They were certainly Trachycarpus. We knew everything that they weren’t. They certainly weren’t takil, they weren’t 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 it’s a killingly difficult 4 hour climb. It’s 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, it’s 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 I’m 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 didn’t 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 hasn’t 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 that’s it. When they are gone it will be extinct in the wild, but if you didn’t 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 hasn’t 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, I’ll 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 world—north-east India, Kalimpong—and are currently testing it for cold hardiness in Britain. Regarding whether it is a new species or not, I’m 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 you’ve 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


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