Trachycarpus on Parade
A timely summary of this popular genus which will
hopefully remove the confusion which surrounds it. A comprehensive
listing of all 8 species, with notes on each.
Martin Gibbons, c/o The Palm Centre email@example.com
Chamaerops No.24, Autumn Edition 1996
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Photo: 4 are better than one: Multi-headed Trachy
(Photos by Sammy Au, H.K.)
In the recent issue of 'Hardy Palm International',
the journal of the Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society,
there was an article about Trachycarpus which illustrates the confusion
that - even now - abounds about this popular genus. I sat down to
write a reply and guessed that our readers would likely be just
as interested. So here it is. Im not sore If you can plagiarize
your own work and hope that the Pacific North westerners will forgive
me for going to press first.
Joe Herbert's article on Trachycarpus in the recent
issue of HPI has prompted me to write a brief letter about the genus,
and to list all the species with their correct names. This will
form the basis of a more comprehensive article which will be submitted
to 'Principes' in due course, but so often I see mistakes, and so
many people are obviously confused about the different species I
think it would be helpful to pre-empt that and let you'all have
As you know, Tobias Spanner of Munich, and I have
carried out many field trips studying this genus in India, Nepal,
China, Thailand and Burma and gained an enormous amount of knowledge
about it. We have found three new species, one of which was published
in 'Principes' and two more are in press. Here are what we see as
the eight species of Trachycarpus.
There are two Trachycarpus seed shapes, which provide
a natural division within the genus :
A. Those with Reniform (kidney-shaped) seeds
1. Trachycarpus fortunei. Easily recogmzed,
widespread, popular and much loved species from China, but so widely
cultivated there, it seems impossible to determine its precise origin,
or to believe that there are any truly wild specimens left.
2. Trachycarpus takil. From a few locations
in northern India, very rare now in the wild as most trees have
been cut down for the fibre. Enormous confusion caused by a simple
photograph of T. wagnerianus in James McCurrach's 1960 'Palms of
the World' which was captioned T. takil. Confusion still reigns,
especially in the USA. T. takil is very similar in appearance to
T. fortunei, and only subtle differences separate them. lt seems
that the difference is more geographical than physical, the populations
are a very long way from China. Very rare in cultivation too. Sorry,
but if you think you may have a T. takil in your garden, you almost
certainly don't. I don't think any seeds have come out of India
between 1887 when some were sent to Beccari in Florence (his description
was based on one of the resulting plants) and a couple of years
ago when Toby and I sent back a few thousand from Naini Tel where
they are cultivated. Imagine our feelings when, after all our care
and hard work, those we sold to a seed dealer were re-distributed
as 'Trachycarpus takil/ wagnerianus'! Maddening! Almost certainly
the most cold-hardy in the genus, and the fastest-growing. See Principes
37 (1) 1993.
3. Trachycarpus wagnerianus. Easily identified
species with small, very stiff leaves. Grows as tall as T. fortunei,
with as thick a trunk. There is some doubt as to whether it deserves
its species status: the leaf shape is about the only difference
between it and T. fortunei (there are some subtle floral differences,
too), and it is not known in the wild. That does not mean it was
never known in the wild, but there are no records. Just as hardy
as T. fortunei, prettier, and considerably more resistant to wind,
the curse of the Chusan Palm.
4. Trachycarpus nanus. Not much doubt about
this species as it is the only one not to grow an above-ground trunk
(or at most, just a few inches) . From Yunnan Province, China, and
under great threat from goats there which eat not the plant, but
the newly emerging inflorescences. Only recently introduced into
cultivation, there are no mature plants anywhere in the world outside
Yunnan See Principes 37 (2) 1993.
5. Trachycarpus 'oreophilus'. This is a new
species from northern Thailand, yet to be scientifically described
(in press). The wild trees grow on wet and windswept mountain ridges
and thus have a somewhat untidy appearance. In cultivation and out
of the wind, they should look fabulous. Recently into cultivation,
a few hundred seeds have been distributed. See Chamaerops (9) 1993
and (17) 1995.
6. Trachycarpus priaceps. New species from
Yunnan, China, described in Principes April 1995. Distinctive because
of the waxywhite backs to the leaves (see photo below). Not in cultivation
anywhere, some seeds were erroneously distributed under this name
earlier this year. Sorry, if you think you have it, you don't. When
it does get into cultivation, it will be a winner! See Principes
39 (2) 1995 and Chamaerops (18) 1995.
B. Those with oval-and-grooved seeds (like a coffee
7. Trachycarpus martianas (includes T. khasianus).
From Nepal, and Meghalaya State, India. Probably also northern Burma
but outof-bounds to foreigners until the wretched and despicable
administration there falls . Cultivated in only a few botanic gardens
(Huntington and Sydney for example) in the world, but locally very
common in the wild, though largely inaccessible. Distinctive features
are the (usually) bare trunk, the seed shape, and the even splits
in the leaf blade. lt has quite a different look from T. fortunei
yet frequently one sees photographs of a bare trunked T. fortunei
captioned as this species. Thousands of seeds distributed over the
last couple of years. See Chamaerops (19) 1995 and Principes 38
8. Trachycarpus 'sikkimensis'. We have to keep
those inverted commas for a little while yet as this new species
has not yet been scientifically described (in press) . Cultivated
commonly in Kalimpong, West Bengal, India, and also growing wild
there, it is a splendid palm with big, leathery leaves and a bare
trunk. lt is very hardy to cold, fast-growing and will be just fabulous
as an ornamental once it is more widely available. Prolific seeder,
many thousands of seeds and seedlings have now been distributed
around the world. (See Chamaerops (20) 1995).
That's the full complement. But what about the suckering
species I hear you ask? In my opinion, it doesn't exist. lt is not
uncommon for a Trachycarpus fortunei to appear to develop a side
shoot but this is in fact the main growing point emerging from the
side of the plant because the way up is blocked for some reason,
invariably the result of some damage. Once this establishes itself,
the original main stem will die back. If it is removed, the plant
may well go on to produce another, but it is still the one and only
growing point seeking a way out and up. A customer of mine removed
4 such as he wanted a single trunk! As soon as one was allowed to
develop, the main stem died. Others that appear to be clustering
are simply the result of several seeds being planted together. On
every such specimen I have examined, including the type specimen
of var. surculosa, all the trunks are the same age (a bit of a giveaway
that) and invariably both sexes are represented, impossible with
a truly clustering palm. However, I would be delighted to be proven
I have heard of several examples of forking Trachycarpus
fortunei. Again this is likely to be caused by damage to the growing
point. I recently received some photographs of a specimen in China
with no less than four trunks!
I hope this will serve to clear up the confusion surrounding
what is essentially a clearly defined and easily differentiated
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