Keith Andrew - National Rhapis Collection, Holyhead, Isle of Anglesey, U.K., www.kannonchiku.co.uk
Chamaerops No.47 - published online 25-06-2003
- Left: Zuikonishiki.
- Right: Taiheinishiki.
Photos: Keith Andrew
I have always been interested in things oriental, such as Japanese Prints, Bonsai, Japanese
Gardens, Satsuma Ceramics and Koi, to name a few. Now a new passion - Kannonchiku - Rhapis excelsa named cultivars.
A professional artist and printmaker, I first came across Rhapis excelsa while selling my prints
in Tokyo and Osaka, but had no time to pursue the matter. When I returned to the U.K. I thought I would look
into getting some, only to find that they were not available in the U.K. and hardly any one had even heard of
them. Then my wife found an out-of-print book, The Miniature Palms of Japan, published in 1981, and I became
even more fascinated by these elusive palms. This was back in 1997. Eventually I found some in the U.S.A. More
recently, I have bought some from a collector reducing his collection that included some quite mature specimens.
This prompted me to produce the web site. My intention was to build my collection and sell the surplus offshoots
to fellow enthusiasts and collectors. Now I have been appointed the European Kannonchiku representative and
have Japanese stock available for sale.
Kannonchiku are a naturally dwarf form of Rhapis excelsa palm that rarely reach two metres.
They have stems covered in fibrous bark and fan-shaped leaves. Subtle variations of leaf shape, colour, texture,
and variegation of leaf, make this a truly unique palm.
There are over one hundred named cultivars of Kannonchiku. From 1947 they have been registered
by the Japan Kansochiku Association (Kansokai) who standardized the list of varieties.
The varieties can be divided into four groups dependent on place of origin.
1 - The Native group - early introductions since the seventeenth century.
2 - Rakanchiku - originate from Southern China.
3 - Taiwanchiku - Came to Japan from Taiwan in great numbers around 1937.
4 - Imported Group - Imported from places other than Southern China and Taiwan with characteristics dependent
on place of origin.
These slow growing, long-lived palms have been part of Japanese culture since their arrival
in Japan around 1600 and enjoy cult status, but are virtually unknown in the West.
Kannonchiku are propagated by removing the suckers. Only two or three are produced each year,
making the production of a large number of plants a slow process.
New varieties come from seed but only 1 in 10,000 seedlings will produce a worthy new cultivar
that might warrant registration.
Every year in Japan, members of the Japan Kansokai Association meet to compile a directory of
palms based on beauty, price, popularity, and that year's new introductions. The members rank the palms into
four classes (Grade 1, 2, 3 and 4). Within each class, the most popular palms are given special recognition.
Today the highest ranking palm is Kobanoshima with the best specimens selling for many thousands of dollars.
In the early seventies the No 1 ranked palm was Eizannishiki, and in 1975 a single choice shoot sold for nearly
$10,000. So, collecting Kannonchiku can be a very profitable hobby. This ranking status will greatly affect
the price of the palm. Palms in a lower ranking group can also be worth as much as the No 1 types due to rareness.
Rhapis palms are very easy to cultivate; but, to grow perfect specimens with no blemishes is
a bit more difficult, so certain criteria have to be met
Although a subtropical palm, Rhapis excelsa adapt very well to many environments as long as
time is allowed for gradual acclimatization.
The optimum growing temperature range is 20°C (68°F) - 23°C (73°F), which, along with their
ability to tolerate dry indoor conditions, makes them ideal house plants.
During the winter it is probably best to keep the palms on the cool side for a time as this
will harden them. Too high a temperature in the winter could weaken the palms and produce leggy growth. 10C
(50F°) - 15°C (60°F) seems about right and the palms will continue to grow slowly. The palms will
stop growing below 10°C (50°F) and will survive even down to freezing if protected from frost.
One reason Rhapis palms make ideal house plants is their liking for low light interiors. Rhapis
palms will survive in very low light but if they are to grow well they do need some filtered sunlight to thrive
and produce new offshoots.
When you first get the palm, you need to know what conditions it has been used to so that you
can gradually get the palm used to its new surroundings.
If the palm is grown in quite bright light the green leaves might have a yellowish appearance
that can be compensated for by giving extra fertilizer, being careful not to over do it. Great care must be
taken with delicate striped leaves as they can easily be scorched by strong sunlight.
More house plants have probably been killed from over watering than for any other reason. Rhapis
palms like to be moist but not wet and soggy. An indication of when to water is when the surface of the compost
is somewhat dry.
Also, get used to the weight of the pot before you water.
A plastic pot would require less watering than a clay pot and a clay pot less watering than
a Kannonchiku pot . The Kannonchiku pot is very porous with a large drainage hole, so the pot dries out more
quickly and can be watered more frequently, giving more oxygen and moisture to the palm.
A good method of watering would be by immersion in a bucket. Immerse the pot twice and drain
off. This will also have the effect of leaching out any deposits of salts from fertilizing. Do not let the pot
stand in water as this could cause the roots to rot. If using a plastic or clay pot stand it on dry, coarse
gravel to help air circulation under the pot. This is not necessary with a Kannonchiku pot as it has three feet
to stand on.
As Rhapis palms grow so slowly they require very little fertilizer, but to look their best and
produce new offshoots, they do need to be fed sparingly.
Also, different cultivars require different amounts of fertilizer, so if you are not sure, stay
on the cautious side . As a rule, when feeding liquid fertilizer, use half the amount stated for green cultivars
and one quarter the amount for variegated cultivars.
Another method of fertilizing that can be used in conjunction with or instead of liquid feed
is 'place' fertilizer. The Japanese term is Okihi, and it is a slow release organic fertilizer. It is made by
mixing cottonseed meal as the base (60%), with powdered fish (20%), and powdered bone (20%). To this mixture
add a little water, mix again, and leave to ferment in a sealed container for two to three weeks.
After fermentation, form the paste into 1-2 cm balls and leave to dry until hard. One or two
of these can be placed around the soil surface in the pot so that, when the palm is watered, a little of the
fertilizer is washed into the pot.
There is room for experimenting with different mixtures, but be careful with delicate variegated
palms, as, if too much fertilizer is washed into the soil, the roots can be scorched. As a way of making the
balls of fertilizer harder so that less is washed into the soil, I added two egg yolks to the fermented mixture!
Rhapis palms prefer well-drained soil with a ph of around six; a soil suitable for 'African
Violets' is fine. Or use four parts ericaceous peat based compost, two parts perlite, one part vermiculite,
two parts coarse grit with plenty of bean size gravel for drainage.
The Japanese method is to use three grades of sand/gravel: large (bean size), medium (pea size)
and small (rice size). This results in an extremely free draining mixture that requires very frequent watering.
Depending on where you live, this could be the ideal soil for achieving the palm's full potential. If your climate
is not too hot and you have good water, this could be the best method.
Pests and diseases:
Rhapis excelsa grown in the United Kingdom and given the correct cultural conditions are affected
by very few pests and diseases.
However, since prevention is better than cure, regular monthly spraying with pesticide and fungicide
will go a long way to prevent any attack.
Scale insect is something to look out for especially when new leaves are emerging. Look for
any woolly deposits in the leaf joints. If you find a scale insect, pick it off and spray immediately.
Brown spot is a fungal disease and can affect especially the older leaves, causing brown spots
and blemishes, and could be caused by cold and damp conditions. Any infected leaves should be removed to avoid
the infection spreading to other palms.
Another problem, though not a disease, are rotting roots, caused by bad cultural practice such
as over watering and fertilizing. The leaf tips will turn black or reddish brown. The palm should be removed
from the pot and the roots checked. Any blackened roots should be removed, the roots should be washed in fungicide,
and the plant should be repotted.
The leaves of delicate variegated palms can be damaged by too strong sunlight, and scorched
by drips of water left on the leaves in the sun. Keep well shaded.
It is not surprising that these unique palms are grown in very unique and exquisite pots.
They were designed specifically for Kannonchiku to reach their full potential. The very best
are handmade works of art, known as 'Nishiki style'.
Less expensive but still impressive is the Namanishiki style, which features a 'wave and bird
Another beautiful pot is the Fuchikin style, plain and simple with gold feet and rim against
a matte black body. The black porous glaze helps retain warmth in the winter and allows roots to breathe.
Kannonchiku pots are deeper than normal pots to give the roots free reign, and the bottom is
a rounded shape so as not to restrict drainage. The large drainage hole is covered with a ceramic disc known
as 'sana', which stops the potting medium from falling through.
Of course, there are cheaper, machine made pots available for everyday use. Only the finest
examples of Kannonchiku should be put into the high quality pots.
I hope this has wet your appetite for learning more about Kannonchiku, or even starting a collection!
They certainly give me a lot of pleasure. I continue to be amazed at how the Japanese continue to develop new
and ever more stunning varieties considering how slow this process is.