Palm Growing At The Sharp End...

Do you know what is the hardiest palm in the world? No, not Trachy or Chamaerops. It's the Needle Palm, Rhapidophyllum hystrix. A splendid introduction to this little known palm.
Gerald McKiness, P0 Box 592 Stockbridge, Georgia, USA
Chamaerops No. 18, published online 23-07-2002

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Rhapidophyllum hystrix - The Needle Palm. Cultivated specimens in Georgia, USA

I was bitten by the palm 'bug' about 25 years ago when I had moved from a nearly Arctic temperate zone to extreme southern Florida, USA. I had been intrigued for years by anything tropical. After many years of growing palms and being surrounded by those which could only be grown to maturity outdoors in the tropics I've once more found myself in an area which is not so palmy and probably as a result of that, I have become interested in Rhapidophyllum hystrix, better known as the Needle Palm.

For those readers not already familiar with it, here is a brief introduction: The Needle Palm occurs very sparingly in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi, USA and in its natural state is mostly trunkless and usually suckering. It has deep green erect leaves with a silvery tint on the undersides. The stem is black and fibrous and the needles from which it takes its name are held close to it. Most plants only achieve an overall height of 1-2 metres making it ideal for small garden areas.

Occurring in deciduous, sub-temperate forests near rivers, on floodplains, down in ravines and in swamps, this palm is a little-changed relict species from a time when the continents were joined together, and has much in common with the Chinese Coryphoid species. I believe that it occurs in the protected places and elsewhere it was wiped out by the glaciers and subsequent weather, which eradicated so many other ancient tropical plants on our continent. It is truly a prehistoric survivor which, due to the spines in the crown, the dinosaurs would certainly have found unpalatable!

The soil in the area where Needle Palms grow in Georgia is a rich, grey-black muck, ranging to clay and interspersed with leaf mould and humus. It appears to thrive in more dense soils than many other palms. They are to be found in deep shade but if acclimatised will adapt equally well to sunny locations. As far as weather is concerned, these palms might as well be conifers. Palm enthusiasts who can grow no other palm outdoors are growing Needles with few worries. I know of examples growing outdoors in Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee and Michigan and there are palm people in Switzerland, England and Germany growing them too. I have personally grown it for many years at high altitude in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Needle palms have withstood temperatures far below freezing for long periods of time, temperatures that would kill or at least damage most other palms. Mine have endured -85F (-225C). I have had some damage at these lower temperatures, but just minor foliar damage which they rapidly overcame the next summer.

Though native to areas where no other palms can be grown outside, this palm is neither popular nor readily available. Just getting hold of it was something of a feat, that first time. I asked nursery friends but nobody bothered with it as it was a palm more suited to colder areas and the people in those areas had never heard of it, and it was not being marketed at the time and was only rarely seen at garden centres. I became obsessed about this palm as I often do when I come across one I don't have, and finally found my needed additions to native palms of the USA. I was away on business at the extreme western edge of Florida, at Pensacola and I found some in a garden centre in large tubs. I couldn't pass this opportunity up so I bought a few of them and took them home to southern Florida. But after several years I couldn't get them to fruit for me, other than a few pathetic fruits on puny infructesceases. The plants grew well, but never quite achieved the robust foliage that they had when grown in a cooler climate. Later, I relocated to Georgia, 700 miles north. I couldn't believe the difference in appearance that the plants achieved after just one winter. I guess they knew that they were home.

Subsequently, I found a few other people in my area who were cultivating them, and some of the plants had grown quite large in their gardens. These palms, grown in sun with fertilizers have a robust growth that belies the tales of slow progress.

I well remember my first glimpses of these palms in habitat. I was travelling along a highway through central Georgia in the middle of winter. All the deciduous trees had lost their foliage. I was looking out of the window and down in the deep ravines where the small creeks flow I saw something green amongst the dead leaves in the dry river beds. When I went back later to investigate I couldn't believe my eyes: there were wild Rhapidophyllum here mixed in with some Sabal minor palms, and native bamboo. There weren't many of them as they are very rare even in the wild.

Naturally occurring Needle Palms are confined to extremely small pockets in very widely scattered colonies of only a few to less than a hundred, and in most instances, fewer than 10 plants. It is dioecious (sexes on different plants) and as far as propagation goes it is its own worst enemy. It is pollinated by a local beetle but the flower stalk is so short, only an inch or two, that the seeds can't get out of the thatch in the centre of the crown if something doesn't brave the thick, dangerous spines, and carry them out. They sprout and die right there! They don't fruit every year either. I have never seen such an instance of attempted genetic suicide on the part of a plant in my life!

Rhapidophyllum really deserves a helping hand from palm nuts such as ourselves in order to increase their numbers. I have been collecting, growing and distributing Needle seed since getting hooked on them over 10 years ago. One of the main reasons to harvest some seed from the wild is to increase the available gene pool in cultivation, to better increase the chances of survival, and healthier progeny.

It is like an Indiana Jones adventure to collect seed in Needle Palm habitat in Georgia, USA. The area is very swampy surrounded by high places where trees and some of the palms grow. The palms themselves usually grow near water, but never with their bases submerged. Most often Sabal minor is also present and usually in greater numbers. Just finding them I walk several yards off the road into dense, shaded bush. I have to be aware of several hazards. There are poisonous snakes such as water moccasins, copperheads and rattlesnakes to look out for. Also these dense brushy areas are home to feral hogs, which can charge a person who disturbs their resting place. Deer are abundant too, and I have startled them several times.

Less dangerous hazards are to be found in the palms themselves. Wasps, scorpions and fire ants all like to make their homes in the palms. The crown of each widely scattered individual found must be inspected by raking out pounds of leaf litter and other detritus to find out which sex it is. It is rare to find a female with an infructescence. I often find germinated seedlings stuck in the c r o w n where they have sprouted, and cannot fall to the ground. The small rodents which feed on them just ate the fruit there and dropped the seeds in the crown. Sometimes I have found impaled rodent carcases in amongst the spines. When I find a female plant with seeds bunched in the crown I use gloves and gently rake them out from between the spines. The flesh smells mildly of cheese. Seedlings and juvenile palms are present, widely scattered and not abundant.

Even with the needles and all the other hazards, this palm is well worth the effort, though it can take several hours to find a paltry few hundred seeds. Many of them I plant, but many more have gone global and now Needle Palms are to be found from New Zealand to Switzerland in the gardens and homes of palm collectors. They really are a must-have for anyone who grows palms in the temperate areas of the world.

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