International Palm Society LogoTrachycarpus princeps, the Stone Gate Palm,
an Exciting New Species from China

Reprinted with permission from the April 1995 issue of Principes, Vol 39, No 2
Journal of the International Palm Society

© 1995 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved

MARTIN GIBBONS, 17 The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West, London SWI4 7ED, U.K
TOBIAS W. SPANNER,  Tizianstr. 44, 80638 Munchen, Germany
CHEN SAN YANG, Yunnan Institute of Botany, Kunming, China

The chance sighting of a single line in a Chinese plant book led to perhaps the most exciting discovery of all along the 'Trachycarpus Trail'. The book in question was the new account of the palms of China in the Flora of China series (Pei and Chen, 1991), published in Chinese so quite incomprehensible to us (MG and TS). However, all the references were in English, or at least using the Roman alphabet, and of course all the Latin plant names were understandable. We were doing research on Trachycarpus martianus and, although there was no record of its occurrence in China in any of the other books, old and new, that we consulted, this book listed and described it. This seemed strange to us since it was not known to occur in China, so why should it appear in a book of Chinese plants?

We arranged to have the entry translated into English and when it was done we were able to read what the Chinese authors had to say about it. The entry began with a description of the palm -nothing strange here-and ended rather disappointingly with the paragraph, "The species is native to the central and eastern Himalayas and Burma. According to records there were some found in western and north-western Yunnan, but so far there is no specimen." And that might have been the end of it, but something nagged. What was this 'record' and how could we find out about it? It seemed an impossible task.

Then, some time later, we were re-reading the accounts for the hundredth time when a line in the references caught our eye. Amongst all the Chinese characters was this: "Hand.-Mazz. Sym. Sin. 7(5): 1360. 1936". The numbers were obviously pages or chapters and 1936 the year, but what or who was Hand. Mazz.? And could that 'Sin' stand for 'Sinica', i.e., China? Was this the old record? The answer came, as so many did, from the library at Kew. 'Hand.-Mazz.'turned out to be an abbreviation of Dr. Heinrich Handel Mazzetti, an Austrian botanist who made some explorations in south-east Tibet, northwest Yunnan and much of south-west China between 1914 and 1918. He published his findings in a book called "Symbolae Sinicae" in German in 1936, a photocopy of which was kindly lent to us by the Library of the Botanical Museum in Berlin. This again had to be translated, but it was less of a problem:

"Trachycarpus martianus ... N.W. Yunnan. In the sub-tropical zone of the Burmese monsoonal forest on cliffs of crystalline limestone, in the Salween-gorge above Chamutong untilbelow Niualo, 1725-1900 m,. . . and from here replanted in the village of Sitjitong. Flowers or fruits are not on hand. From my memory and a photograph sent by Dr. J. Rock, these approximately 7 m high trees have stems of at least 20 cm diameter after the leaf bases have fallen, which develop a short tuft only below the fresh leaves. These are wax-white below........

The trail was starting to warm up!

Then, additionally we came across another book by the same man, "Naturbflder aus Süidwestchina" ('Portraits of Nature in South West China') and whereas the first was more of a scientific work, this was more of a diary and filled in the gaps in a very readable fashion. On page 242, under the title, "To the Irrawaddy Upper Course", we read:

"In the evening, I reached Niualo, a Lissu village as you can tell by the name, the most northerly of all, and I was welcomed in a friendly manner, with presents. From there it was finally not far any more to the Salween [river]. We descend, reaching the subtropical rainforest just below 2200 m...... and a distance on bare rock leads us to the slope of the valley itself, from where we quickly descent through sparse pine forest to Sitjitong, a scattered village, 3 km north of Chamutong. The Salween comes here from Wuli in the northeast, breaking through the band of crystalline limestone, through which, in the gorge of Chamutong, it is quickly returned towards the east, making up for this error in its NNW-SSE course. Everywhere, this hard rock shows as steep cliffs, in the lower gorge as enormous pillars, 600m high, one of which forces the path onto an artificial high wall in the river itself. At high water level, this route is flooded, and the only way to reach Chamutong is above, over the ridge. Whereas there are still ophytes, such as Schefflera delavayi, here brownish and felt-like, found on the sandbank stretching along the river below Sitjitong, the gorge itself is characterized by sub-tropical opulence again. Huge lianas, like the new Mucuna coriocarpa with thick trunks and 50 cm long pods, climb high up into the Sloaneas ... between them flourishes the definitely tropical Asplenium nidus, developing large nests with tongue-shaped, 70 cm long leaves. Rather xerophilic again are the many small epiphytic orchids, none of which unfortunately was in flower any more, and the palm Trachycarpus martiana, which grows stately stems, mainly on the other side of the river, almost inaccessible on the cliffs. I crossed the flat scree of Chamutong, around which the Salween is forced towards the eastern slope in a gentle bend, via the shortest way, below the main village, as I was in a hurry, and [being delayed by] the officer there was what I needed least. That he had already gone insane and died from opium and schnapps, of which he consumed 8-10 rice bowls a day. I did not know at the time. And so I came to Dara, a village on the slope, inhabited mainly by Tibetans..."

Exciting stuff! Limestone pillars 600 m high-that would be something to see indeed. After a great deal of searching, the map room at Kew provided the location of Chamutong, indeed we were delighted to find Handel-Mazzetti's original map there. The village turned out to be in extreme north-west Yunnan, almost at the point where China, Tibet and Burma meet, a restricted or 'closed' area of China and certainly not open to the casual tourist. The Salween River itself rises in the Himalayas then flows south just to the east of the north/south border between China and Burma. Finally, a thousand miles later, it discharges itself into the Gulf of Martaban, in Burma, at Mouhnein. So far, so good. But what of HM's collections and-intriguingly-that photograph?

Dr. Dransfield suggested that as Handel-Mazzetti was Austrian, his herbarium collections were likely to be in Vienna, and this indeed proved to be the case. Our friend there, Thomas Baum-gartner, discovered them, in good condition, at the Institute of Botany where they had been gathering dust for 70 years. An official request kindly made by Dr. Dransfield brought them to England and it was with great excitement that we visited him at Kew to see them for ourselves.

A glance at the leaves was enough to make one thing immediately very clear. Though they were certainly Trachycarpus they were certainly not T martianus. Most exciting of all was the photograph, taken by Dr. Rock, and referred to by Handel-Mazzetti. It was a habitat photograph (Fig. 1) and although at first glance it appeared not to show any palms at all, closer examination under a microscope revealed dozens of them growing on a sheer cliff face on the far side of a fast flowing river-the Salween, or as it is called in China, the Nu Jiang ('Angry River'). They looked like big trees, with thick trunks and with big crowns of fan-shaped leaves, not unlike T fortunei but for one thing-they seemed to have bare trunks, and as they were growing on such inaccessible sites it was inconceivable that they had been stripped by man, as are the vast majority of Trachycarpus in China, for their useful fibers. The whole thing was becoming very intriguing indeed, and we began to suspect that we were looking at a new, undescribed, species of Trachycarpus. As is so often the case, the only way to solve this puzzle was to visit the palms, and this we resolved to do.

You have to have a good and valid reason to visit 'closed' areas of China, and even then, it's not always possible to get permission to do so. We were told that because our interest was botanical, we would have to apply first to the Institute of Botany in Kunming, who, on our behalf, would apply to the relevant authorities to try to obtain permission to visit the area where our palms grew. Our contact at the University was Professor Chen Sanyang, the self-same person who had written the T martianus entry in the palm volume of the Chinese Flora and something of an authority on the palms of China. He was as intrigued as us by the possibility of a field trip to this remote area with a view to re-locating this 'lost' Trachycarpus.

We applied without delay but it took 10 months before the permission finally came through. In the intervening period we exchanged dozens of faxes and letters, and as well sent photocopies of our passports together with full details about ourselves and our purpose. It was arranged that the professor would accompany us, and we would travel to our destination in a rented jeep.

In October 1994 we flew to China, staying in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province. On arrival we checked into an hotel, and the professor and his interpreter ('David') called round to introduce themselves. We were due to leave early the following morning and accordingly we were up and ready at 7 am when we were connected by the small jeep in which we were to spend many hours and to travel many miles. First, however, there were more permissions and travel documents to obtain so we spent an hour or two driving around Kunming from this office to that. Finally, we were off!

We traveled along a good road for about 45 miles (80 km) to begin with. After that it deteriorated somewhat but was still not too bad...

Three more pages, color photos and a map complete the story of this adventure in the the April 1995 issue of Principes.  Back issues are available through our online shopping cart while supplies last.

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