Common Names: needle palm, porcupine palm
Family: Arecacea (Palm Family)
Needle palms are great evergreen plants for very shady to partly shady areas.
Habit: It is a beautiful, rugged, extremely cold hardy palm. It is a bushy fan palm that grows to about 6 - 8 ft in height. It produces multiple stems creating a rounded clump. The tightly packed stems form a dense thicket. It doesn't form a trunk but instead has a slowly lengthening crown that may grow to about 4 ft long and about 7 in in diameter. The stems are composed of old leaf bases, fiber and long slender spines. They are usually erect but in older clumps they may grow along the ground as they compete for light and space. The "needles" are dark brown or black, very slender and sharp and grow from 4-10 in long. Needle palm might be the world’s hardiest palm.
Each stem carries about 8 - 12 erect leaves that are about 4 ft long. The foliage is glossy deep green on top with a dull silvery white underside. The slender petioles (leaf stems) are smooth and are 2-2.5 ft long. The fan-shaped leaves are deeply indented with each leaflet 1-2 in wide and 12-20 in long. The tip of each leaflet is bluntly squared off and notched as if trimmed with pinking shears.
Flowers are tightly compact inflorescences about 6-12 in long and held close to the stem. Obscured by foliage and fiber and protected by the sharp needles they are often not visible. Tiny yellow to purplish-brown flowers are male and female borne on separate plants (although hermaphroditic individuals exist). Flowering is irregular with blooms typically appearing in spring and early summer. Seeds are red to brown and roughly spherical. They are about a 1 in. in diameter and have a fuzzy fleshy covering and are protected by the sharp needles.
Culture: It is native to the southeastern United States. Populations can be found in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina. Needle palm grows on shady wooded slopes as well as in moist bottomlands along streams.
Needle palm prefers fairly moist, well-drained soils with lots of organic matter but adapts to most soils including dry conditions. Light applications of fertilizer a couple of times a year in spring and summer is ideal. It likes full to partial shade although will grow in full sun.
Propagation by seed or by division of clumps. Although it takes a lot of effort to dig and separate a large plant it is relatively easy to successfully transplant. Seeds germinate in about 6 to 12 months. Seedlings will sometimes sprout under established plants.
Uses: The needle palm is a perfect, low maintenance plant that makes an excellent specimen plant for small spaces. In the shade garden the needle palm provides a rich green backdrop of flowering plants and it blends beautifully with many perennials and flowering shrubs.
Mass plantings of needle palm can also serve as security hedges. The thick growth and needles form and impenetrable barrier that will deter most animals and people.
Established plants are drought tolerant and are perfect for shady xeriscape plantings. Needle palm will also grow in wet soils and can even survive flooding and standing water. Use near ponds and streams and swampy forests. Needle palm is also useful around swimming pools where its clean habit and ability to take splashes of chlorinated water.
Probably the most cold hardy palms, gardeners in cooler places can add this terrific palm to their palettes. It won't successfully grow in places where the ground often freezes, but in locations like Atlanta, Georgia; Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia the needle palm can be planted in protected areas with great success. It grows well in containers well and is durable enough to grow indoors.
Notes: R. hystrix is the only species in the genus Rhapidophyllum. You may see this palm referred to as Chamaerops hystrix, which is a synonym, in some older publications. It was formerly considered to be in the same genus of that other cold hardy dwarf, the European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis).The state of Florida lists needle palm as endangered because it is "commercially exploited". It should not be transplanted from the wild.