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What is a Needle Palm?

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  • Written By: Alex Tree
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2016
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The needle palm, scientifically known as Rhapidophyllum hystrix as well as by the common names porcupine palm and fan palm, is the single member of the genus Rhapidophyllum. This shrub-like plant is endemic to the coastal plains of the southeastern United States, but is often cultivated in plant nurseries in cooler climes. The needle palm is considered one of the most hardy palm trees. Tightly packed leaves with needle-like projections grow from a single base. The maximum height of this plant is 10 feet (3 m).

This plant owes its name to the shape of its leaves, which resemble the needles or spines of the porcupine. The genus name Rhapidophyllum means needle leaf in Greek. Hystrix comes from the Greek name of the porcupine.

Needle palms grow in the United States regions of Florida and Georgia and extend west toward Alabama and Mississippi. They grow sporadically along the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, as well as along the flood plains and streams in Mississippi. These palm trees are rare in their native environments and have become endangered because of being cultivated in nurseries to the north of their natural habitat.

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The needle palm can have single or multiple fibrous bases that grow up to 4 feet (1.2 m) long and 7 inches (17.8 cm) wide. Deep green-colored leaves grow in clumps that are 2 to 5 feet (0.6 to 1.5 m) in diameter. The fan-like leaves have 15 to 20 segments and silvery undersides. Brown to black slender and sharp spines ranging from 4 to 10 inches (10 to 25 cm) long protrude from between the leaf bases. Small yellow or purple flowers that bloom during spring and summer grow at the center of the clumps.

This type of palm is slow growing and can tolerate temperatures as cold as -20 °F (-29 °C) and as warm as 40 °F (4.5 °C). It can survive frequent frosts but can be damaged during prolonged cold spells. The needle palm can also tolerate moderate droughts and occasional flooding.

The needle palm is grown in nurseries in temperate regions and is used as a landscaping and gardening plant. It is also grown in containers and placed indoors. Needle palms grow best in moist, well-drained soil under the shade but can adapt to sandy soil and full sunlight. For protection against rotting, leaf litter can be added around the base. After the winter season, spraying bactericide and fungicide is recommended.

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