The needle palm is a terribly talented plant that is beautiful, rugged, extremely cold hardy, fast growing and one of my landscape favorites. Rhapidophyllum hystrix is a small shrubby fan palm that grows to about 6 ft (1.8 m) in height. It produces suckers freely, these multiple stems creating an ever widening rounded clump of indeterminate width. Over time the tightly packed stems will form an impenetrable thicket. The needle palm doesn't form a trunk but instead has a slowly lengthening crown that may grow to about 4 ft (1.2 m) long and about 7 in (17.8 cm) 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 lean or grow prostrate along the ground as they compete for light and space. As each stem matures, more slender spines grow from from between the leaf attachments. These "needles" are dark brown or black, very slender and sharp and grow from 4-10 in (10-25 cm) long.
The needle palm has a tightly compact inflorescence (flower structure) that is about 6-12 in (15-30 cm) long and held close to the stem, barely peeping above the leaf bases. Obscured by foliage and fiber and protected by the sharp needles it is often not visible without serious effort. Tiny yellow to purplish-brown flowers are held on the inflorescence with male and female flowers borne on separate plants (although hermaphroditic individuals are also reported). This palm flowers irregularly with blooms typically appearing in spring and early summer.
I have observed (and grow) two forms of needle palm that have slight differences in form and foliage. One form is shrubbier, suckers more and has leaves with smaller leaflets that are in greater number. The other tends to sucker less, has larger crowns, with fewer leaves that have fewer, but wider leaflets. I've observed the shrubbier form in North Florida growing on hillsides while the other form seems to be more common in Central Florida where I've observed it growing on flat, moist forest floors.
The needle palm is a perfect, low maintenance plant that makes an excellent specimen plant for small spaces near the patio or entryways. In the shade garden the needle palm provides a rich green backdrop of flowering plants and it blends beautifully with azaleas and camellias in the filtered light under a high canopy of pine.
Mass plantings of needle palm can also serve as security hedges. The thick growth and lethal needle form and impenetrable barrier that will deter most creatures, especially human.
Established plants are drought tolerant and are perfect for shady xeriscape plantings. Surprisingly the needle palm is also happy to 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 it's clean habit and ability to take continual splashes with chlorinated water make it a good choice although don't plant too close to walkways so passersby aren't pricked by the nasty needles.
Being one of (possibly the) most cold hardy palms, gardeners in cooler places can add this pretty palm to their plant 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 to everyone's evergreen delight!
The needle palm grows happily in containers and although not often seen used as such, it is durable enough to grow indoors if you have the space to accommodate it.
Plantings of needle palm are able to trap and "swallow" fallen leaves and other debris. There's no raking and this "automulching" further reduces maintenance - I told you this was a talented palm!
Needle palm competes with the Mazari palm (Nannorrhops ritchiana) for the title of "Most Cold Hardy Palm". In my experience, at least here in the southeastern USA, the Mazari palm is not even a contender. It is a desert palm from Central Asia and tends to fall prey to fungus diseases following cold spells while the needle palm is unfazed by both freeze and disease. Likewise I suspect that the Mazari can probably "out survive" the needle palm in cold arid areas.
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).
Jack Scheper 12/1/96; updated 2/1/03, 5/7/03