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What is Trachycarpus?

By J.M. Densing
Updated May 16, 2024
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Trachycarpus is the name of a genus of several different species of palm trees. A genus is a group of different species that share certain identifying characteristics. In the case of trachycarpus, these traits include fan-shaped palms, often with a hairy looking trunk, and producing male and female flowers on separate plants. Some of the species also are very tolerant of cold climates, which is rare for a palm.

In the wild, trachycarpus palms grow in an area near the lower Himalayan Mountains, spanning from northern India, Nepal, Burma, China, all the way past northern Thailand. They are small- to medium-sized trees and growth in the wild is sparse. Many more palms are actually grown through cultivation than occur naturally. They are relatively easy to grow in cultivation since they can withstand a wider range of temperatures than many other types of palms.

There are eight different species within the trachycarpus (T.) genus of palms: T. fortunei, T. takil, T. wagnerianus, T. nanus, T. oreophilus, T. princeps, T. martianus, and T. latisectus. Each species is unique, but they do share some traits in common. They are all fan shaped, with the palm fronds made up of many leaflets growing out of a central base, and fanning out in a rounded, semi-circular shape. The leaf bases produce fibers that give the trunk a distinctive, hairy look.

All of the trachycarpus species are dioecious, meaning that individual plants produce either male or female flowers, but not both at the same time as some other plants are able to do. This means that they are not able to self pollinate and produce seeds on their own so they must be cultivated by people, or pollinated by insects. Many of the species produce kidney-shaped seeds, and a few produce oval, grooved seeds. Germination takes about eight to 12 weeks, and initial growth is very slow, although this speeds up as plants mature.

There are several varied uses for trachycarpus palms. In many places, the fibers produced by the leaf bases are used to make doormats, brushes, brooms, and strong, rough rope — The tree's nickname is "hemp-palm" because of this use. At one time the fibers were even used to make a simple type of rain cape, but they were very uncomfortable and got heavy when wet. The seeds are used for medicinal reasons, and have been rumored to have anti-cancerous traits. Several species, notably trachycarpus fortunei, are grown for use in landscaping and gardens because of their ability to tolerate cold temperatures.

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