|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
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