Trachy Troubles

by Nigel Kembrey
Chamaerops No.48, published online 24-05-2004

Trachycarpus takil, heavily laden with fruit, Naini Tal, Uttar Pradesh, India.
Photo: M. Gibbons & T. W. Spanner

We all love Trachycarpus; after all, it is the cornerstone palm in many parts of the world where winters are cold with frost and snow and summers are cool. But what of its future? We are fortunate enough to have been introduced to several new species to add to those that we already grow. These palms stand proudly in our gardens: T. takil next to T. fortunei, T. fortunei next to Waggie. Soon T. princeps, T. latisectus, T. nanus and T. oreophilus will hopefully adorn our gardens too. Unfortunately, these palms hybridise all too easily, and with so many palms now being planted, it seems that the seed and subsequent generations of palms from our home grown collections will be anything but pure. You may think this is a new problem, but Trachycarpus have been planted in our botanic gardens for 150 years, and, as those who follow the online forums already know, some lively debates are already raging over what is and what isn’t true Trachycarpus.

If there is any doubt about the problem of hybridisation, then look at the confusion brewing over Trachycarpus takil as a prime example of what is likely to happen in years to come. Having been described by Martin Gibbons and Toby Spanner as very much like Trachycarpus fortunei but larger in all its parts with a curious, twisted hastula, this palm was supposedly lost to cultivation between the years of 1887, when some seed from India was sent to Beccari in Italy, and 1994, when seed was brought out of India by the aforementioned explorers Martin Gibbons and Toby Spanner. The only known plant to exist in cultivation was a male Trachycarpus takil in Rome Botanic Garden grown from the original Beccari seed. Suddenly, long lost T. takils are popping up all over the world. A Canadian enthusiast recently posted pictures of his Trachycarpus, which had the most curious, twisted hastulas I have ever seen, and yet this plant was too old to be grown from the seed distributed from India in 1994. There is a large Trachycarpus at Lamorran that, I believe, Martin Gibbons has inspected and confessed that it appears very much like a T. takil. How can this be when they are extremely unlikely to be pure T. takils? What is the explanation?

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