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This palm, which is the only species that can be termed really hardy in this country, varies in height according to the circumstances under which it is grown. In the Temperate House at Kew there is an example about 50 ft high, but in the open air plants at least seventy years old are only about 12 or 15 ft high. In the warmest counties, however, it is 25 to 30 ft high. The stem is erect, cylindrical, clothed with coarse, dark, stiff fibres, which are really the disintegrated sheathing bases of the leaves. These fibres are employed by the Japanese and Chinese to make ropes and coarse garments. The leaves, which persist many years, are fan-shaped, 11⁄2 to 21⁄2 ft long, 21⁄2 to 4 ft wide, divided at the outside into numerous deep, narrow, folded segments, 2 in. wide, tapering to a ragged point. The stalk is two-edged, and varies in length according to the age of the specimen and the conditions under which it is grown; it is usually between 2 and 3 ft long, and 1⁄2 to 1 in. wide, with small jagged teeth on the margins. The flowers are borne in a large, decurved, handsome panicle from near the top of the stem among the younger leaves; they are yellow, small, but very numerous. The panicles bear flowers usually of one sex only, the female ones being the smaller and less ornamental. Fruit a blue-black drupe about the size of a boy’s marble. Bot. Mag., t. 5221.
T. fortunei is widespread in central and southern China, but has so long been cultivated for its fibre, and naturalises itself so readily, that its original habitat is uncertain. It is not a native of Japan, but there too it was an important economic plant, and the first seeds to reach Europe were sent from that country by Siebold to Leyden in 1830. Not many germinated, but of the few plants raised one was sent to Kew in 1836. In 1860 this plant was 28 ft high, but no one suspecting its hardiness it was grown in the tropical palmhouse and was dead by the end of the century. Fortune first saw this palm in China on the Island of Chusan in 1843 – whence the vernacular name he chose for this species. Five years later he met it again in Chekiang and in 1849 sent a case of plants to Kew. One of these, no doubt on his recommendation, was immediately planted in the open and has survived every winter since then. The first general distribution of the Chusan palm took place in 1860, when Glendinning’s nursery auctioned plants raised from seed sent by Fortune from the Ningpo area of Chekiang.
Although the Chusan palm is perfectly hardy in the south and west of Britain, in so far as it will, when properly established, withstand a temperature of 32° F or more of frost, it likes a spot screened from the north and east winds. Exposed to blasts from those quarters it will live, but has usually a miserable, battered appearance. When it was first experimented with in the open air it was usual to cover it in winter with mats or branches, but this has been found to be unnecessary. It is, however, advisable to give some protection to very young plants in severe weather. The perfect acclimatisation of this palm in the south and west is shown by the self-sown seedlings it produces as far east as Sussex. Since it is normally dioecious, both sexes have to be grown if fruits are to be obtained, but a male plant grown by E. A. Bowles at Myddelton House, Enfield, bore some female flowers one year, which fruited, and no doubt the converse also happens.
The example at Kew mentioned above grows near the main entrance and measures 25 × 13⁄4 ft (1972). Another of the plants sent by Fortune was, at his request, presented to the Prince Consort and still thrives at Osborne House in the Isle of Wight. It is about 40 ft high (1979), and other examples in southern and western England are of that height or near it.
Some plants cultivated in Japan and China have smaller leaves than is normal in T. fortunei, with stiffer segments, and have been distinguished as T. wagnerianus Beccari. Similar in foliage to T. wagnerianus but developing several trunks from the base, is T. caespitosus Beccari, described in 1915 from a plant introduced to a California garden from Japan. A similar palm at Leonardslee in Sussex was acquired from Japan early this century and still exists; this was named T. fortunei var. surculosa by Henry in 1913.
T. martianus (Wall.) H. Wendl. Chamaerops martianus Wall.; T. khasyanus (Griff.) H. Wendl.; C. khasyanus Griff.; C. griffithii Verlot – Trunk smooth, to about 50 ft high, fibred only immediately under the leaves. Leaves divided to about half way, glaucous beneath; segments drooping at the tips. Native of the Himalaya from Nepal eastward, at low elevations, N.E. India, Burma, and probably S.W. China; introduced by Wallich around 1817, but scarcely tried out-of-doors in this country. According to Kimnach, some plants grown as T. martianus are really a form of T. fortunei but the true species is cultivated in California, from seeds obtained from the well known Indian seedsman Ghose of Darjeeling. A palm growing at Pallanza on Lake Maggiore, in the former Rovelli nursery, is almost certainly this species; see the note by Derek Fox in Journ. R.H.S., Vol. 98 (1973), pp. 502–3 and fig. 251.
T. nanus Beccari – Of dwarf habit, with a creeping trunk. Flowers in elongated panicles, springing direct from the soil. Native of Yunnan to about 8,000 ft, described from a specimen collected by the Abbé Delavay in 1887. It is probably not in cultivation.
T. takil Beccari – This interesting palm was described by Beccari from a plant in his own garden at Florence, raised from seeds sent by Brandis from Kumaon in 1884. In this region of the Himalaya, to the immediate west of Nepal, T. takil occurs in several localities at an altitude of 6–8,000 ft. It is more closely allied to T. fortunei than to T. martianus, with which it was at first confused, differing in the closer fibres of the trunk, the less deeply divided leaves and, at least in the type, the more elegant crown. It should be hardy in Britain, as it was in Professor Beccari’s garden; his plant is portrayed in Kew Bulletin 1912, p. 291.
The palm described by Thunberg under the name Chamaerops excelsus is Raphis excelsa (Thunb.) Henry ex Rehd. (R. flabelliformis Ait.), a dwarf palm with cane-like stems. The confusion arose from the fact that Thunberg cited two Japanese names which properly belong to Trachycarpus fortunei.
Collections in which the Chusan palm has attained a height of 35–40 ft are: Nymans and Leonardslee, Sussex; Abbotsbury, Dorset; and Tregothnan, Mount Edgcumbe, Trebah and Bosahan, Cornwall. At Culzean Castle in Ayrshire there are forty-five trees, the largest in girth measuring 23 × 33⁄4 ft (1984).