International Palm Society LogoTrachycarpus latisectus: The Windamere Palm

Reprinted with permission from the January 1998 issue of Principes, Vol 42, No 1
Journal of the International Palm Society (Renamed as Palms in 1999)

© 1998 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved


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It was Henry Noltie of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, who first alerted us to the existence of a strange Trachycarpus in Darjeeling, India. He had been in the area during the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Sikkim Expedition in 1992 and had noticed a pair of these trees in the garden of the famous Windamere Hotel. He took photographs and collected herbarium specimens, but our later examination of these at Kew provided no clue as to the identity of this palm, other than that it appeared indeed to be a species of Trachycarpus.

Different solutions occurred: Could they be some kind of hybrid? Or were these the "real" Trachycarpus martianus of Nepal (Noltie 1994; Spanner et al. 1997), and were those that we had encountered the previous year in Meghalaya, India (Gibbons and Spanner 1994), actually Trachycarpus khasyana as they were originally described by Griffith in Palms of British East India (1850) who believed them to be a separate species? There was only one way to find the answers to these questions and that was to visit the palms to see for ourselves. Thus it was that in November 1994 as part of our "Trachycarpus Asia" expedition, we simply decided to take a side trip to see whether we could throw any light on the identity of these mysterious palms.

First, we spent a week in Nepal where we saw many Trachycarpus martianus, both in the wild and in cultivation. It was clear from a close examination of these palms that Trachycarpus martianus and T khasianus are indeed one and the same species, so that particular theory could no longer hold water. So it was with some excitement that we headed off for Darjeeling to see these unidentified palms for ourselves.

Darjeeling is a most lovely town, an old hill station from the days of the British Empire, still with many colonial buildings and much architecture intact, though in many cases, fading. We were travelling by taxi in which we had driven from Biratnagar on the Nepalese border, and after passing through the town of Siliguri, we began to climb. This hilly road is accompanied from bottom to top by the narrow gauge railway line of the "Toy Train " a true miniature locomotive with carriages, which brings both passengers and goods up to Darjeeling, and down again. The journey, while fun is rather slow and takes eight hours. Our Formula One taxi driver took just two.

We reached the Windamere Hotel at 11 pm, and had high hopes of it, having read the many accolades and complimentary remarks about it in our guide book ("best porridge in India," for example). Though we had no booking and the hotel was full, a comfortable room was somehow found for us, and we were supplied with hot-water bottles as at this altitude, 2200 in above sea level, it was distinctly chilly, with a slight mist worthy of the lake from which the hotel takes its name. Notwithstanding this, we couldn't wait for the "boy" who carried up our bags to go so we could explore the grounds and the Trachycarpus waiting for us there.

If we had any expectation of being able to identify these two big palms at a single glance, we were much mistaken, and we stood there for some time in the dark, examining them by torch-light. Although a little wind damaged, they were very robust and quite stately looking trees with smooth grey trunks and large leaves, resembling those of some Livistona more than any Trachycarpus we knew (Fig.1). Eventually we had to admit that we were stumped -- we simply knew everything that they weren't. Further inspection by daylight the following morning after breakfast (the promised porridge, eggs, and bacon) only served to confuse us more and we continued to be at a loss as to what they could be.

During our brief stay in this attractive town we saw many other Trachycarpus, both in the town itself and in the rather disappointing and much neglected Lloyd Botanic Gardens. These were, without exception, T fortunei, and despite T martianus having been reported as growing here (Dhar 1994), a thorough search revealed not a single tree.

We left Darjeeling still scratching our heads, and drove to Gangtok in Sikkim, and thence down to Kalimpong. On the way we saw many Phoenix rupicola and Wallichia disticha, both 11 special" palms to us and which we were delighted to find.

On arrival in Kalimpong, another pleasant town, we checked in at the Himalayan Hotel and our surprise can only be imagined when, in the garden, we saw another of the Windamere palms! The answer to the conundrum came in a flash: this was a new and undescribed species of Trachycarpus, quite distinct and different from all others. In the following few days we were to see many more, all, it must be said, in cultivation, generally in gardens in and around the town. They were indeed splendid trees (Fig. 2) with slender trunks to about 8 in tall, occasionally even taller. Their numerous, comparatively large, leathery and, for a Trachycarpus, shallowly divided, nearly circular fan-leaves are carried on long, robust, unarmed petioles (Fig. 3) and form an upright, open crown. After dying, the leaves hang down in a small skirt below the crown and eventually drop, together with the coarse, fibrous leafsheath, revealing a smooth, light grey trunk (Fig. 4). The leaf is also most notable for its rather wide segments producing a slightly convoluted leaf profile (Fig. 5). Some of the segments in the leafblade, particularly the lower ones, are fused for nearly their entire length, in groups of 2-4 (Fig. 6). Many of the female trees carried bunches of oval, flattened, yellowish-brown and eventually blueish-black fruit. The seeds resembled those of T martianus, albeit slightly larger, proving the two to be closely related.

The Trachycarpus from this area were certainly not missed by the early plant hunters and have been mentioned by various authors, though always under the name of T martianus. We asked ourselves, how could the unique characteristics, which distinguish them from T martianus from early age on, have been missed, when they had been seen by eminent botanists both in the field and later, as herbarium specimens? Under Trachycarpus martianus, Beccari tells us in 'The Annals of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta' (1931) that " . . . stunted plants have been enountered by Gamble on the Rissom (actually Rissisom; mountain) near Dumsong beyond Darjeeling, at about 1970m, and (by Brandis, in 1879) on the Dumsong Hills at about 2400m." Further, he notes that "C. B. Clarke collected ... a young plant of Tr. martiana in Sikkim at Rung-bong at about 1,200m elevation." Of these two latter collections Beccari states that "the leaves of the young plants are of a rather herbaceous texture (and) have few segments." Of his own collection, Gamble, in A Manual of Indian Timbers (1902) writes, "The writer has once found small plants of what is probably this palm (T martianus) on Rissoom, near Dumsong...... It seems clear that these collections were not of T martianus at all but were of the same species as we had now seen in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and the fact that it was new and different had been missed. However, reading between the lines, it does seem that perhaps they were not 100% convinced of the true identity of the plants they had collected. Later examination of some of their herbarium specimens now at Kew confirmed our suspicions; they were identical to those we had come across in the field.

While we were delighted to find this palm in so many gardens in Kalimpong and were certain about its identity, we felt we really had to try to locate a population in the wild before formally describing it as a new species. This was to take another 12 months, during which it was searched for high and low in Sikkim and in the Kalimpong district.

Just a week before our return trip to India in October 1995, a small population had been found some 20 miles east of Kalimpong, growing on the slope of a steep valley in the Dumsong range of hills near where it had originally been recorded (as T martianus). We travelled back, looking forward with great excitement to what was to be a highlight of the trip. We had allowed ourselves considerably more time than in the previous year and before our....

This excerpt is the first two pages of the article that originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Principes.  Several color photos accompany the article.  Back issues are available through our online shopping cart while supplies last.

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