The Rhapidophyllum hystrix, also known as the “needle palm”, is native to the subtropical southeastern United States. Wild, endemic populations can be found from coastal southeast South Carolina, southward to Florida and west across the coastal plain of Mississippi and southern Alabama in wooded, swampy areas. Unfortunately, due to habitat destruction and collection of wild specimens, coupled with a seed germination time of up to two years and an extremely slow growth rate, this palm is becoming quite rare. The State of Florida lists this species as “threatened”.
It is one of the most cold-hardy palms in the world, and can be found growing in cultivation in several areas with warm temperate climates, as far north as coastal Long Island, New York.
The scientific name Rhapidophyllum means “needle-leaf”, translated from the Greek words for sharp (rhapis) and leaf (phylum), while hystrix is from the scientific name of a genus of porcupines. The English name likewise refers to the long, needle-like spines produced at the bases of the leaf sheaths; for similar reasons, it is also occasionally called “porcupine palm”.
The species is dioecious, with separate male and female trees. The fruit is dark brown when ripe, oval, about 2 centimeters long, with a single seed. They are produced on densely branched clusters.
The slow growing Rhapidophyllum hystrix is likely the hardiest palm known, tolerating winter temperatures down to about -20°C, while it also demands a hot summer climate with long periods over 30°C.
There are two of this species of palm thriving in the Merwin Palm Collection.
Want to “virtually explore” the Merwin Palm Collection? Search through our archive of Palm Facts of the Week, featuring palms hand-planted by W.S Merwin. To search through the Online Merwin Palm Database, visit this link.
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