Two Great New Plants from China (Part One)

Even after over 100 years of exploration and collection, botanists are still discovering new plants in China, especially in the southwestern Province of Yunnan. Most amazingly, some of these new discoveries are fabulous ornamental plants that are sure to become wildly popular and thus widely available. In this first article, I will discuss Trachycarpus princeps and in the next one I will talk about Cycas debaoensis.

Trachycarpus is a genus of about eight palmate-leaved palms from the Himalayas region. The most common one is Trachycarpus fortunei, or Windmill Palm, which is a very hardy palm that can survive 10F and its thick fiber on the trunk has been traditionally used to make door mats and brooms. An old saying in China is: “Whoever owning one thousand Windmill Palms and ten thousand Tung Oil Tree (Vernicia fordii) will provide easy lifes for all his/her offsprings.”

Trachycarpus princeps was only described in 1995 by Martin Gibbons and Tobias Spanner from the U.K. and Germany. Part of their interesting discovery story can be read here. They named this species “princeps” (Latin for prince) refering to “the stately bearing of this palm and the majestic way it looks down from its lofty position on the sheer cliff faces”. The photo below shows this palm in its natural habitat along Nu River (pronouced like ‘nook’ without the ‘k’ and means Angry River) in Yunnan.

Trachycarpus princeps habitat

Trachycarpus princeps habitat 2

(Photo taken by Stephane Ringot from France in 2008)
The most distinctive feature of Trachycarpus princeps is a layer of white waxy covering all over the underside of the leaves. This characteristics show up even in young seedlings. Several years ago, many people bought Trachycarpus princeps seeds when they first became available, but a lot of them were dissapointed to find that the ensuing seedlings had all green leaves, and the reason was that those seeds were collected from a different Trachycarpus species. Below is a photo of a true Trachycarpus princeps seedling showing off the wonderful white leaf underside.

Trachycarpus princeps leaf

In addition to its wonderful foliage, Trachycarpus princeps is also quite cold hardy to at least 20F. Mature plants may reach 20′ high. This palm is destined to become a great garden plant for all West Coast gardeners.

3 thoughts on “Two Great New Plants from China (Part One)

  1. Wow, that’s one heck of a scenic palm! Or maybe it’s a palmy scene. So why did the seedlings produced in so many gardens have all-green leaves? Does the white develop only in Angry River conditions?

  2. Most people believe that the first batch of seeds were mislabeled. They were some other Trachycarpus species. The genuine Trachycarpus princeps seeds have the white leaf underside even as seedlings. There is also another newly discovered Northern Indian palm, Trachycarpus ‘Manipur’ or ‘Naga Hills’, that also has this silvery leaf underside. Both palms may show up in major box stores in 5-10 years.