My Trachycarpus Palms

By George Oakes, 57 Abbey Rd., Lowton St Marys, Warrington, Cheshire WA3 IEP, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 50 - published online 31-01-2005

Trachycarpus fortunei was originally found by Robert Fortune growing as an avenue tree on Chusan, one of the colder islands off the coast of China. It can be seen all over the warmer regions of China and will grow in excess of 40 ft. in height in its native climate, although it will take 40 years or more to do so. My niece had one growing in her garden in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, which grew at a very fast rate. It put on 6 ft. in a couple of years, with dark green fan leaves all down the trunk. The area is called New England and does get some frost and snow in winter, so that tells us what the best climate is for it to grow well. It has survived temperatures down as low as —20°C after its trunk has reached 2 or 3 ft. If the trunk is shorter, —10°C is the protection point. To insulate, throw something over the center of the leaves to keep the frost from that area. Fleece is very good, as it is warm and lets humidity through. T. fortunei will grow unprotected in most parts of the British Isles, the milder parts of Western Europe.

Due to their special structure, the roots do no damage to buildings so the palm may be planted up close to walls and house foundations. Most palms grow a root system that does not take up too much space in your garden. Grown against a wall, the trunk may lean outwards, giving it that coconut type shape that lots of people try to achieve. Some people will cut the roots to bend a palm that way, but the old wall trick does it for you while sparing the roots. Cutting roots slows the growth rate down quite a lot.

T. fortunei does not like a lot of wind, so plant it away from windy corners. While the palm will not be kept from growing at its normal pace, the leaves will be ripped to shreds, making it look very untidy. Do give this palm lots of manure--it loves it!! Mine gets several hundred pounds every winter. As a result it put out 17 new leaves this year and the trunk is about 18 inches thick. Manure not only puts growth into a faster mode, but it also gives the rootball frost protection, with the straw or hay adding a great deal of humus to the ground as well.

All types of Trachycarpus can be grown in pots and brought inside for the winter to be used as winter decoration in a cool room. The dwarf Trachycarpus nanus, however, should be grown outside in the ground. It does not like to be overwatered, and of the six I had in pots all died from water. Even though I did not water them very much (once a month in winter), I lost the lot. The one I planted outside, however, is still growing well, even though it has had frost, some snow, and as much rain as you can get in the Northwest of England.

I have several Trachycarpus species growing in my garden, and all show some disregard to cold. T. martianus looks different from the others in that its leaves are larger and lighter green with a silvery edge of down. The fibres on the trunk are not quite as fluffy as those of T. fortunei. It is not as hardy as the others, but still winters in the ground, with fleece thrown over the growing point. My plant is 3 ft. high with a 2 ft. trunk. I have not had any trouble with it, and it has been growing outside for the last two or three years.

T. takil, I find, looks just the same as T. fortunei, except for its more yellow green leaves, which are very stiff. I have to say it is just as hardy as T. fortunei, and requires very little attention once planted out. My T. wagnerianus, seems to grow very slowly. I have had one for five years, and while it still grows along, it is way behind the other species in height. Maybe it will grow faster once planted in the ground; mine is still in a large pot and winters inside a small greenhouse. T. nanus, as mentioned before, does not like water if you grow it in a pot. In the garden it fares best in a sunny position and likes soil that is freely draining.


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