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Rhapidophyllum hystrix is often confused with:
Rhapis excelsa Form
Trachycarpus fortunei Trachycarpus fortunei
Native alternative(s) for Rhapidophyllum hystrix:
Sabal minor Form
Sabal palmetto Form (Edgewater, FL)-Mid Winter
Serenoa repens Cultivated form
Plants that fill a similar niche:
Picea glauca 'Conica' Form
Camellia sasanqua Camellia sasanqua
Salvia rosmarinus Rosmarinus officinalis

Rhapidophyllum hystrix

Previously known as:

  • Chamaerops hystrix
  • Rhapis caroliniana
  • Sabai hystrix
Phonetic Spelling
rap-i-doe-FILL-um HIS-trix
Description

The Needle Palm is a dense, rounded, clumping, evergreen shrub and temperate fan palm in the Arecaceae or palm family that grows slowly from 3 to 6 feet tall and 4 to 8 feet wide. It has a short and thick trunk, and large, evergreen, palmate, glossy green leaves. The leaf measures up to 30 inches across and is deeply divided with 5 to 12 narrow and stiff segments. The segments are arranged like a fan, and each segment is about 20 inches long. Black, sharp, needle-like spines that are 6 inches long project from the base of the palm and protect the interior of the plant. In the summer, clusters of yellowish-brown, three-petaled flowers bloom in panicles within the leaf sheaths and are mostly hidden by the foliage and not particularly showy. The flowers are followed by small, reddish-brown drupes that are seen in the fall.

The palm is native to the southeastern United States and is typically found in floodplains and swampy areas of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. It is hardy from zones 6b to 10. It has been commercially exploited and has become an endangered and threatened species. 

The genus name, Rhapidophyllum, is from two Greek words. Rhaphis means needle, and phyllon means leaf.  The specific epithet, hystrix, is Greek for porcupine. The common name, Needle Palm refers to the 6-inch long black spines that emerge from the base of the shrub. 

The Needle Palm grows in rich, moist, and well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade, but it performs best in partial shade. It is tolerant of wet soils and is drought tolerant once established. It is important to plant this shrub in a sheltered area to protect it from winter winds. Of the palms, the Needle Palm is the most cold hardy and will survive in zone 6b. Mulching the roots will help the plant survive the cold winter temperatures. This nearly trunkless palm will survive sub-zero weather for short periods and is therefore hardy in the southeast. It spreads easily by suckers, and it can be propagated by dividing these suckers. It may also be propagated by seeds, but it takes 6 to 12 months for the seeds to germinate.

The sharp spines usually preclude moving this shrub once established, and these spines are dangerous for people and animals. This plant is seldom damaged by deer, It provides good wildlife cover and attracts beetles.

This plant may be used as a textural accent, specimen, or understory shrub in the landscape. It may also be used as a foundation planting or as a container plant.  The spiky evergreen leaves add interest to a shady border and the winter landscape.

Seasons of Interest:

Bloom: Spring and Early Summer      Foliage:  Year-round         Fruit:  Fall

Quick ID Hints:

  • dense, rounded, clumping, evergreen shrub
  • trunk is dark reddish-brown and has sharp 6-inch long, dark brown to black needles
  •  leaves are alternate, palmately compound, and fan-like with 8 to 16 leaflets
  •  leaves measure up to 30 inches in diameter
  • each leaflet is 15 to 20 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide
  • petiole is 18 to 20 inches long.
  • flowers are yellowish-brown clusters measuring 6 to 12 inches long
  • fruit is a reddish-brown, oblong, fuzzy drupe  

Insects, Diseases, and Other Plant Problems: This shrub has no serious insect or disease problems.

See this plant in the following landscape:
Cultivars / Varieties:
Tags:
#evergreen#drought tolerant#specimen#palm#large leaves#winter interest#dwarf#accent plant#high maintenance#cpp#spreading#deer resistant#spines#glossy leaves#foundation planting#spiny leaves#rounded#clumping#fantz#wet soils tolerant#container plant#suckering#landscape plant sleuths course
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
Tags:
#evergreen#drought tolerant#specimen#palm#large leaves#winter interest#dwarf#accent plant#high maintenance#cpp#spreading#deer resistant#spines#glossy leaves#foundation planting#spiny leaves#rounded#clumping#fantz#wet soils tolerant#container plant#suckering#landscape plant sleuths course
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Rhapidophyllum
    Species:
    hystrix
    Family:
    Arecaceae
    Life Cycle:
    Perennial
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Division
    Seed
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Southeastern United States
    Distribution:
    Native to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina
    Wildlife Value:
    Bears and other mammals eat the fruits. The plant serves as a wildlife shelter.
    Play Value:
    Textural
    Wildlife Cover/Habitat
    Dimensions:
    Height: 3 ft. 0 in. - 6 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 4 ft. 0 in. - 8 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Shrub
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Broadleaf Evergreen
    Habit/Form:
    Clumping
    Rounded
    Spreading
    Growth Rate:
    Slow
    Maintenance:
    High
    Texture:
    Coarse
    Appendage:
    Spines
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    High Organic Matter
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Available Space To Plant:
    6-feet-12 feet
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Red/Burgundy
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fall
    Fruit Type:
    Drupe
    Fruit Length:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Width:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Description:
    The fruit is a reddish-brown, oblong, fuzzy drupe that ripens in the fall. It is 1 inch in diameter. The drupes are close to the stem and appear tangled in fibers and sharp needles. The fruits are "evil-smelling" and are eaten by bears and other mammals.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Gold/Yellow
    Insignificant
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Insignificant
    Panicle
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Summer
    Flower Petals:
    2-3 rays/petals
    Flower Description:
    The flowers are yellowish-brown clusters measuring 6 to 12 inches long. They are held close to the stem, and often they are hidden by the foliage. They bloom in the spring and early summer.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Broadleaf Evergreen
    Leaf Color:
    Gray/Silver
    Green
    White
    Leaf Feel:
    Glossy
    Leaf Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Leaf Type:
    Simple
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Palmatifid
    Leaf Margin:
    Entire
    Lobed
    Hairs Present:
    No
    Leaf Length:
    > 6 inches
    Leaf Width:
    > 6 inches
    Leaf Description:
    The leaves are alternate, palmately compound, and fan-like with 8 to 16 leaflets. The leaves are large and measure up to 30 inches in diameter. Each leaflet is 15 to 20 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide. The tips are pointed or squared. Lobed segments (20-40) are linear with 2 mid-ribs, entire, toothed at apex, waxy above, silvery glaucous beneath, semi-rigid, and induplicate. The upper surface of the leaflets is dark green. The leaf sheaths have long needle-like spines. The petiole is 18 to 20 inches long.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Dark Brown
    Red/Burgundy
    Bark Description:
    The trunk is dark reddish-brown and has sharp, dark brown to black needles. The needles measure 6 inches long. The trunk is erect or reclining and short and covered with leaf sheaths.
  • Stem:
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    No
    Stem Description:
    There is no stem. The leaves are attached to the unbranched trunk.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Coastal
    Container
    Patio
    Pool/Hardscape
    Landscape Theme:
    Drought Tolerant Garden
    Design Feature:
    Accent
    Security
    Specimen
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Deer
    Drought
    Wet Soil
    Problems:
    Spines/Thorns