Trachy Troubles

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?

The tried and trusted explanation is that Trachycarpus fortunei is an extremely variable species and all of these traits are within its natural range of variation. Indeed, a number of growers of young T. fortunei plants have claimed to observe the twisted hastula and creeping of the young plant. This, however, leads to another question that I will raise later. It should also be pointed out that the twisted hastula does not appear to manifest itself in all T. takils grown from Indian seed, as of yet. The T. fortunei itself is also very variable in size, a huge T. fortunei being documented in the European Palm Society journal several years ago.

I believe there is another explanation for these variations. In the Victorian planthunting era many Trachycarpus were brought back from China and India, and some of these palms survive today. I have already mentioned the Rome Botanic Garden T. takil, but what happened to the rest of the seed? What not many people know is that although T. takil was first identified as a separate species by Beccari from plants grown from that seed in 1887, the plants had already been incorrectly identified as Trachycarpus martianus, and seed was sent back from India between 1830 and 1850 by Major Edward Madden and almost certainly planted in our parks and gardens at that time. Clearly other plants also found their way into European gardens. What became of them? These palms were probably planted in proximity to other Trachycarpus species in the late nineteenth century and hybridised. We are fortunate today to be able to easily buy seed from all over the world, but early in the twentieth century, with war and closed borders, seed would have been much harder to come by, and much seed would probably have come from these very same palms in European botanic gardens. As Trachycarpus hybridises readily, it is likely that the seed collected from early T. fortunei was in fact occasionally cross pollinated with other species present at that time. It is likely that a number of mature Trachycarpus in our botanic gardens today are F1 hybrid Trachycarpus produced from those first Trachycarpus palms introduced in the Victorian planthunting era.

I collected seed from below some large and beautiful mature Trachycarpus at Abbotsbury Botanic Garden 6 or 7 years ago and was amazed at the variation in the plants that grew. Whilst the majority are regular T. fortunei, some have bizarre hastulas, some creep, some are burnt by frost at —5°C , and two plants have leaves that detach when the leaf dies. One only has to wander amongst the much more consistent young T. fortunei grown from pure Chinese seed at the Palm Centre to realise that something is very different. Is it possible that these unusual palms are F2 hybrid Trachycarpus and not T. fortunei at all? After all, F2 offspring of hybrid plants of any species will display considerable variation that is not apparent in the F1 generations. Very often the variability grows with each successive generation. This variation in the offspring could well be a clue as to the genetic make up of those old Trachycarpus growing in our parks and gardens and provides a very strong explanation as to why people are finding palms with T. takil-like traits, and also explains the considerable variability generally observed in the T. fortunei species.

This brings me to the question regarding T. fortunei raised earlier. Exactly how many of the plants that we grow and regard as T. fortunei are, in fact, hybrids? A recent discussion on the Pacific North West forum centred on an enthusiast who visited China and claimed to have discovered T. takil has led me to an alarming conclusion. He found Trachycarpus so consistently big and different that he believes they fit the T. takil description of “larger in all their parts with a bare trunk”. If we go along with the scientific theory that Trachycarpus as a single species evolved over millions of years all along the Himalayan foothills into several different species , then clearly they cannot be T. takil. So what are they? My own conclusion (contentious though it may be) is that he has found true T. fortunei unaffected by hybridisation, which, like T. takil, are larger in all their parts. Having grown up with T. fortunei as a very variable species and faced with such a large stand of trees in habitat, this would be an easy mistake for any enthusiast to make. Personally, I find this all very alarming, because if my observations are correct, the evolutionary process that has created these magnificent palms over millions of years has been reversed in a couple of our generations.

Whether my historic supposition is right or wrong, with the array of species now being introduced, this is most certainly what will happen in the future, putting the individual species very much at risk.

Clearly, the only way to preserve each and every one of these species is to preserve them in their natural habitat. Fortunately, they grow in pockets all along the base of the Himalayas and are separated by long distances, which is nature’s way of preventing cross pollination. The main threat is from man; but, with the international palm trade and the income that is now derived from the seed, hopefully the local people will see the value in preserving these beautiful palms.

From our point of view, provenance of seed should be taken very seriously. For example, it is no good picking seed from a Trachycarpus takil in a London garden in 10 years time and selling it as Trachycarpus takil seed, for two reasons. First, the seed is likely to have crossed with any number of Trachycarpus in close proximity. Second, by not buying authentic seed from India, the market for seed will drop, making it more likely that the Indians will cut down the trees. As palm enthusiasts, we can all do our share to preserve the species. First, we can document what we grow and do our best to establish provenance of the plants we buy before we buy them; and, second, we can ensure that we continue to buy seed from authentic suppliers, sourced from the last remaining true stands to ensure the guardians of these palms have a financial interest to protect their assets and preserve these wonderful trees for posterity.

Finally, Martin Gibbons tells me that he and Toby Spanner are writing a detailed book on the genus, although it is not known when it will go to press. I for one would welcome this addition to the palm library, and I am sure it would clear up a lot of misunderstandings concerning these wonderful palms, so let’s all hope it gets published in the near future, as I am sure it would make a fascinating read.

(There is still some field and taxonomic work to be completed before we can attempt to bring this book on its way, so please don’t be looking out for it too soon. ed.)


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