Livistona chinensis is one of the more cold hardy palm trees commonly in cultivation, and yet ironically is native to the essentially frost free subtropical islands and coastlines of China, Taiwan, and southern Japan. This palm is better known by its common names, the Chinese fan palm and the fountain palm. The former name comes from its palmate leaf structure, while the latter is due to the frond’s hanging apical lobes that create a falling, fountain-like appearance. Without a doubt, this palm is the most commonly grown Livistona species in the world, and given its beauty and cold-hardiness, it deserves a closer look.
The Chinese fan palm is a tall trunk forming palm of coastal and island forests amidst warm, subtropical seas, commonly forming monospecific groves. They typically stand no more than 10 meters tall, but large specimens can approach 15 meters. The gray to brown trunk is usually not more than 30 centimeters in diameter and is essentially naked since the petiole stubs tend to fall away quickly once old fronds are shed. The fronds are costapalmate (having long costa extending up the center of the palm-shaped leaf), up to 200 centimeters long, nearly as wide, and can number 50 or more forming a dense crown. The thin, long apical lobes hang perfectly downward giving the crown a pleasing, fountain-like appearance. The petioles are stiff and highly serrated with sharp brown spines, and are 150 -180 centimeters long. The trunk is unbranched and strong, being quite capable of withstanding intense typhoon winds that haunt this tree’s native shores.
This palm is hermaphroditic, bearing both male and female flower parts. The subglobose (nearly spherical) yellow-green flowers are born on relatively short, branched flower stalks in the early summer. These never grow beyond the confines of the crown, and so remain relatively unseen during flowering. The blue-black olive-like fruits range from subglobose to ellipsoid and usually are fully ripe by early winter. Seed production can be copious, making this species a potential weed under the right conditions.
In nature this stately palm is never found far from coastlines, in fact its habitat is restricted to the sandy southern shores and islands of the South China Sea, northward to the East China Sea, and east to the immediately adjacent parts of the Pacific Ocean. Historically it was found from southeastern China (Hong Kong, Hainan Island, and Guangdong Province), Taiwan, many of Japan’s Nansei Islands (Yakushima, Tanegashima, Okinawa, Iriomotejima, and Ishigakijima), northward to the Korean Straight (Okinoshima), along the Pacific coast of Kyushu (Aoshima), a few coastal areas of Kyushu (Cape Sata and Cape Toi) and Shikoku (Ashizuri Peninsula), as well as the Bonin Islands (Ogasawara Islands) in the Pacific Ocean.
It also is native to Uotsurijima of the Pinnacle Islands (called the Senkaku Islands in Japanese and Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) where apparently it forms near continuous stands on much of the island. The fate of this population is uncertain given the hotly contested status of this tiny island chain, but it seems that the non-native goat population poses a more immediate threat for the entire island’s ecosystem. This palm has suffered range restriction due to human activity throughout its native distribution, particularly where it is found on mainland areas.
Despite its relative rarity in the wild, Livistona chinensis has been naturalized in many places throughout the world including Bermuda, Mauritius, La Réunion, Hawaii, southern Florida, New Caledonia, Fiji, Vietnam, and Java. In Florida it has been listed as a category II plant by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council – a designation for species that potentially can become an invasive pest. To date it has not been found to be aggressively invasive there, and is even recommended as a yard specimen in the northern half of the state by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).
In Bermuda it is considered a aggressive pest, especially along roadsides and is actively being controlled there. In general it seems to establish on disturbed, moist sites such as ditches, but also along natural water courses. Care therefore should be taken when considering using this plant in the landscape.
There has been much debate about the origins of this northernmost growing Livistona. It seems likely the area around what is now northern Taiwan and the southernmost of Japan’s Ryukyu (Nansei) Islands is its place of origin. Large sections of the East China Sea have been above sea level in the past and it is thought that this species enjoyed a far greater range at that time, extending perhaps even northward to the Tokyo area. At least three varieties have been proposed for this plant in the past including the typical form hailing from its southern range in China, v. subglobosa within Japan’s southern islands, and v. boninensis confined to the Bonin Islands south of Tokyo.
DNA analysis has been done on the Japanese Ryuku/Kyushu populations and has found two genetic subgroups, one focused around Yakushima, Tanegashima, and mainland Kyushu, and the other around Ishigakijima and Okinawa. The Bonin Island populations have been isolated the longest, and at present are considered a separate species, L. boninensis, by Kew. Also, the Chinese trees and v. subglobosa are not considered distinct enough to warrant separate status, and therefore constitute just one taxon, L. chinensis. In terms of form, southern and northern plants are nearly indistinguishable except that the latter have more spherical fruits in general.
In Japan the northernmost outpost of this species occurs on Okinoshima, a small pristine island in the Korean Straight just off of and a part of Fukuoka Prefecture. This small island is home to a number of rare plants including L. chinensis as well as the northernmost population of the birdsnest fern, Asplenium antiquum. Having said that, there are only 4 specimens of L. chinensis on the entire island and they are not reproducing. On the Pacific side of Japan, another remnant population exists on a small promontory in Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku Island. This population as well is not reproducing.
That leaves the sizable population on Aoshima, just off of Kyushu’s southeastern coast in Miyazaki Prefecture, as the most northern growing, reproductive population. It is estimated that no less than 5000 trunked individuals exist on this tiny islet (a mere 4.4 hectares in extent), plus many more young plants distributed over much of the area. In fact the palm dominates the island’s vegetation, forming the canopy in places. What is curious is that genetically this population is akin to plants from the Okinawa area rather than the nearby groups on Tanegashima and Yakushima. For this reason it is believed that Aoshima’s trees were established by seeds, viable trunks, and perhaps shoots floating northward on the Black Current (Kuroshio) that bathes Japan’s southern shores. This idea is supported by an experiment conducted by the staff of Aoshima Shrine. They found that seeds were still able to germinate after being soaked in ocean water for 60 days. It is likely therefore that Aoshima’s population is of recent origin. To read more about L. chinensis on Aoshima see this interesting pdf by Ehara et al: Livistonia chinensis var. subglobosa on Aoshima, Japan (2002).
Besides being an important horticultural plant around the world, the fruits of the Chinese fan palm have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine as an anticancer agent. Chinese researchers have discovered promising inhibitory effects of seed extract of this species on a variety of tumor cell lines in the laboratory. Indian researchers have also discovered that phenolic compounds in the seeds and fruits have antibacterial effects due to their astringent properties. In China the wood has been used to make umbrella handles and walking sticks for centuries. The young leaves also are used as hats, brushes, and even as fans (a true fan palm!). The frond’s tough fibers are also made into rope. Today this palm is still cultivated in Guangdong Province for these traditional uses.
Here on Kyushu it is grown mostly in larger public spaces – along roads, in parks, and occasionally in front of private buildings. By far however, the exotic Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta, is the favored tree on Kyushu. The reason for this is unclear to me, except that perhaps W. robusta is a faster growing tree and attains greater heights (up to 30 meters). I have noticed that the hanging lobes of L. chinensis do tend to get brown and ratty in the winter months, especially in exposed positions, but so do the fronds of W. robusta. Interestingly, neither species is commonly available in typical retail nurseries, but rather have to be purchased from private tree farms. Actually that is the norm here in Japan since many gardens are just a few square meters in size.
Growing this species is straightforward since it seems at home in just about any reasonable soil. In its native range it is commonly found in acidic sands, but seems adaptable to even limey soils. It does seem to prefer wetter sites, but is said to be rather drought resistant once mature. Like many other palms it grows faster in full sun if well watered and fertilized, but is considered by most to be a fairly slow growing species. The only drawback to growing it in an exposed position is frost damage to the fronds, which can become unsightly if temperatures drop below -3 to -4 C for very long. I’ve also seen quite a bit of yellowing of the fronds in winter in my area, a place that rarely gets below -3 C. Still, all things being equal, this is a remarkably cold hardy palm. In most situations seed fall does not lead to many volunteers, unlike Washingtonia robusta and Sabal palmetto which have to be carefully trimmed of their flower stalks each year. That certainly is one positive attribute of this species in the landscape.
Now a little about its cold hardiness rating. Most sources list L. chinensis as being reliably cold hard to USDA cold hardiness zone 9, at least in the eastern USA. Without a doubt however it can be grown in areas that experience colder conditions as long as the cold weather does not persist too long. I’ve seen numerous posts on forums of folks boasting about growing this palm even in zone 7 where temperatures can dip to -15 C or lower. Remarkably this subtropical plant is often capable of sending up new fronds in spring after being burnt literally to the ground in winter. While this is an interesting feature, its application may be limited to very small plants that have yet to produce a sizable trunk. On the other hand I’ve heard growers in central Florida complaining about frost damage to the fronds when temperatures drop too long at night, making them an eye sore. To each his own. Definitely this palm is best grown in nearly frost free areas (say zone 9b and higher). In north Florida it is sometimes grown under a canopy of oaks, thus protecting it from lighter frosts. Young plants in shadier conditions produce lovely, soft looking fronds, and for this reason some people even mass plant it in the shade as a ground cover.
One more interesting tid-bit. Many sources continue to differentiate between the “typical form” from China and “v. subglobosa” from Japan. The latter is often referred to as the dwarf Chinese fan palm, though it remains unclear that these plants are smaller in size or shorter in stature than the more southernly growing plants. I have also heard people say that “v. subglobosa” produces seedlings that are considerably more cold hardy than the “typical form”. To confuse things even more, I’ve read articles where the author talks about the dwarf stature of “v. subglobosa“, its nearly spherical fruits, lovelier form, etc. to only later on contradict themselves by saying there is no conclusive scientific evidence to differentiate the two forms. I can’t comment about any of this, but for now will have to follow Kew’s view that only one taxon is in existence, though it is certainly possible variation exists across its extensive range.
In a world with a limited number of frost tolerant palm species, Livistona chinensis shows at least some promise of surviving in milder temperate gardens if well sited. Beyond that, this truly is a beautiful species as a garden subject with its soft, cascading appearance.