Trachycarpus sp. "Manipur" or "Naga Hills"

By Nigel Kembrey, Bristol, England
Chamaerops No.49 - published online 04-11-2004

My attention was first drawn to the existence of this new palm when a fellow palm enthusiast in Europe emailed me to ask if I knew anything about a new palm in the far North East of India. This was an exciting moment indeed and the hunt was on for more information. I emailed Martin Gibbons before Christmas but unusually did not get a reply; Martin is usually the first to know about these things.

The palm world is a small place and the rumour quickly spread through the European palm community (the fanatics anyway). Bit by bit information began to emerge, although the discoverer was obviously not keen to divulge information. The palm was provisionally identified as Trachycarpus princeps "India form".

It apparently grew on steep grass slopes in Manipur, India (although secrecy is such that this fact is still by no means certain) at altitudes of over 6500 feet between evergreen sub tropical forest and the mountains above. Seed was reniform [kidney-shaped] with orange fruit (like Trachycarpus princeps and oreophilus). The trunk was up to 20 feet tall and bare, the crown of the palm made up with large apparently glaucous leaves with spectacular white backs.

Better still, this area is located at the bottom right end of the Himalayan arch, an area that sees snow and frost in winter and if the palm did indeed grow in the open under these conditions then it seemed likely it would be an extremely tough one. What an exciting prospect!

Shortly after this Toby Spanner confirmed that the palm was growing throughout the Naga Hills near Mount Saramati, a mountain that rises to 12,000 feet. The Naga Hills start in Burma, run down through Nagaland and peter out in Manipur itself. It seems likely the palm grows throughout this area. Unfortunately Toby thinks that it is unlikely that any Europeans will be able to go there. It seems the last Westerner to do so was the late Frank Kingdon Ward who wrote the book Plant Hunter in Manipur, a reference that Toby very smartly recalled. Ward makes reference as follows: "The cliffs above us, inflamed by the setting sun, looked easy to climb, and as there was a distinct dip in the range here, I decided to follow up the stream the next day. I hoped to get an uninterrupted view into Burma from the top, besides a close up of the palm trees which were almost the only trees growing on the naked sandstone. They grew isolated or in small clumps and rows, stiffly, often leaning far over the edge, and had a curiously unfinished appearance, as though they had been left over from an earlier geological age."

So is this palm a form of Trachycarpus princeps? Initial reaction is that it is most likely a brand new species, although in geographical terms its location is not far away from the native princeps populations. It's certainly very similar in many ways: the bare trunk, fruit colouration, seed shape and magnificent white waxy backs to the leaves. But then it differs in that the leaf is almost 100% orbital with 60 segments, as opposed to T. princeps with around 48 segments and a leaf that is 66% orbital at best. Petioles appear more robust with curious teeth. It seems possible that Trachycarpus "Manipur" or "Naga Hills" will be described as a brand new species in due course.

Seed seems fairly easy to acquire, and it's most certainly the easiest of the Trachycarpus I have tried to germinate. Seed germinated within two weeks of sowing and for me is already pushing up strong and seemingly stiff initial leaves. This experience seems shared by the handful of palm enthusiasts lucky enough to acquire those first few seeds.

This palm will surely become one of the mainstays in any palm grower's cold hardy collection. This is a winner for sure!

(This article has also been submitted to the "Hardy Palm International")


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