Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chusan Palm, Chinese Windmill Palm or just Windmill Palm, as they are often called, is without doubt the most important palm suitable for cooler temperate gardens. Here in the U.K Trachycarpus fortunei or ‘Trachys’ as we like to call them are indeed truly hardy palms tolerating the vagaries of the U.K climate with ease; flourishing and even flowering and producing viable seed quite happily.
If like me you enjoy a tropical or colonial look to your garden, Trachys are an absolutely essential addition. Suitable for a range of varying conditions from shady to full sun positions, Trachycarpus fortunei is at home. A useful evolutionary development is that Trachycarpus naturally grow on wooded hillsides from China to India, through to the Japanese islands where when young, the baby palms grow in shady conditions amongst the forest canopy only to burst into sunshine as they mature, gaining heights against their leafy neighbours. Occurring as it does in hilly or mountainous regions, Trachys are often subject to high rainfall and of course cold winters hence their inherent hardiness and adaptability for us gardeners.
Here in West Sussex, we grow many Trachycarpus in the ground in our heavy, brick-making, wet in winter, dry in summer clay with huge success, with palms often achieving 30-40cm of trunk growth in a single season.
We’ve had so much success in fact that we now grow some of our Trachycarpus commercially in the ground, ready to be lifted and potted for sale when the time comes. As for cultivation, with all palms (and this goes for other species we grow here) the key is to give them the best possible start when planting in your garden. We recommend adding well-rotted organic compost to the prepared ground, at least a 50/50 mix with your existing soil. Make sure that you carefully plant your palm at the same level as the compost in the container. Never plant deeper, in fact, if in doubt, plant a little higher. Planting is best undertaken when the soil is warm, late spring through to early autumn.
Once planted water in well to settle the ground, a dilute seaweed feed helps here to hasten root development. Then leave alone for six months or so, only watering in extremely dry conditions. If you would like subsequent rapid growth, palms are gross feeders during late spring through to summer and Trachycarpus in particular are always hungry. Personally, I use organic fertilisers, so in spring, each of my Trachys gets a couple of handfuls of pelleted poultry manure (tip: wear gloves!). If they’re in a really special spot, an extra handful in July gives a super boost, as does the occasional feed of liquid seaweed.
It’s also worth mentioning that like many palms, Trachycarpus are dioecious which means they are single sex, either male or female (and occasionally in between). The males produce great swathes of sulphur yellow tiny flowers each summer whilst the females produce larger drupes of pale yellowish-green flowers which after a hot summer develop into hundreds of pea-sized, kidney shaped grey-black seeds.
I’m not going to describe a Trachycarpus here, I’ve included lots of photos – if you haven’t seen one in the flesh, a photo speaks a thousand words. Just to say – Trachycarpus are a single stem palm with one growing point producing large palmate leaves supported by the familiar hairy trunk. The hairiness is in fact the fibrous bases of each leaf petiole (stem) and to my mind add insulation, protecting the trunk from the elements. The fibre can be removed, in Asia, it is harvested and woven into heavy cloth or rope. The exposed trunk continues to develop, apparently with no ill effect but for me personally, I prefer the naturally furry and cuddly look.
Trachycarpus, being a single trunk palm can become quite tall, eight to fifteen metres or so after many many years. As a guide here at the nursery garden, after ten years, we have palms ranging from 2m trunks up to some approaching 3.5M. I’ve found that young palms tend to grow rapidly up to 2-3m then slow down reducing altitude and concentrating on flowering and reproduction, slowly gaining height as new leaves are produced each year.
I could go on as I love Trachys but one final point, please consider where you plant your Trachy. Allow it space for the future, and avoid really windy locations as the large leaves look sad when wind-scorched and bashed.
- Eventual Size:Up to 5 metres in height
- Position:Full sun to full shade but out of strong winds
- Habit:Hairy brown trunk topped with dark green fan leaves
- Soil:All soils, but avoid waterlogged areas; drought tolerant once established
- Synonym:Chamaerops excelsa, Chamaerops fortunei
- Common Names: Chinese windmill palm, windmill palm, Chusan palm, hemp palm, Nepalese fan palm
- Hardyness:H5 - Hardy in most places throughout the UK even in severe winters (-15 to -10)
- Growth rate (UK):15cm-30cm of trunk growth per year