Rhapidophyllum Hystrix (rap-ih-doh-FIL-lum, HIS-triks) is a shrub-like evergreen perennial species from the Arecaceae or the palm family.
It is the only plant in the Raphidophyllum genus and is native to the coastal margins of the subtropical areas of the eastern Gulf and south Atlantic states of North America.
However, the plant has also been naturalized and is commonly found in many other parts of the southeastern United States – from South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Alabama.
It is also cultivated in many other areas of the country along both East and West Coast, including Long Island Sound, Seattle, and Washington DC.
The most distinguishing characteristics of Rhapidophyllum hystrix are their needle-like leaves and the sharp spines which grow from the leaf sheaths – the scientific name of the plant also reflects this.
Rhapidophyllum comes from two Greek words ‘Rhapis’ meaning needle and ‘phylum’ meaning leaf.
Hystrix, on the other hand, comes from the Greek word for hedgehog referring to the spines or bristles found at the bases of petioles.
This is why the plant is also sometimes referred to as the porcupine plant or hedgehog palm.
However, it is more widely known with the following common name of needle palm.
It is also occasionally called blue palmetto.
Rhapidophyllum Hystrix Care
Size & Growth
Needle palm is a slow-growing branched and palmate palm species which grows from a short single base clumping habit but bifurcates into branches as it grows up with a tropical look.
The stems are tightly held together and form a dense shrub-like base no more than 4’ feet tall, at maximum.
However, the whole plant can reach up to 6’ to about 10’ feet due to its long leaves.
The central leaves of the plant typically remain erect whereas the side ones are slightly drooping.
The leaves are dark green, long – they can grow over 6’ feet in length – and fan-shaped with a long petiole and 8 to 16 leaflets.
The base or trunk of the plant has several small and sharp needle-like spines between the leaves.
These spines work as the plant’s defense against grazing animals.
Flowering and Fragrance
Rhapidophyllum hystrix produces small, but dense clusters of yellow-brown flowers in early summer.
Borne at the top of the stems, the three-petaled flowers typically remain hidden between the showy foliage.
The shrubby Needle palm is a dioecious plant, which means it produces male and female flowers on separate plants.
The blooming period is followed by the production of fruits on densely branched panicles, in mid to late summer.
The fruits are small, oval, and single-seeded reddish-brown drupes.
Light & Temperature
Needle palm displays the best growth when planted in part shade, but can tolerate full sun.
Porcupine palm grows best in hot summers but can survive in cool summer climates; though the growth does get affected in such weather.
Rhapidophyllum palm is highly prized in temperate or colder areas because of its winter hardiness – it is one of the most cold-hardy palm species in the world.
Although extreme cold weather may cause some foliar damage, the plant usually recovers.
The recovery, however, is precarious in areas with cool summers.
It also needs to be protected from winter winds.
The hardiest palm is hardy to USDA hardiness zones 6 to 10, cold hardy down to -10 degrees F (-23° C).
Watering and Feeding
Blue palmetto needs a moderate amount of water but is drought tolerant once established.
For best growth, water enough to keep the soil moist, but make sure to not overwater. Reduce watering in winter.
Feed with a slow-release fertilizer in spring and mulch around the base in winter.
Soil & Transplanting
Hedgehog fan palm prefers organically rich, evenly moist, and well-drained soil, but can tolerate dry and heavy soil.
Peat-based soil, however, can burn the roots and hence, should be avoided.
Also, it is recommended to not fertilize the soil before planting this palm species.
Grooming and Maintenance
The Rhapidophyllum species is not demanding and hence, quite easy to grow.
Prune the plant to remove dead fronds and maintain a tidy appearance.
How To Propagate Needle Palm
Porcupine palm plants grow from seeds or propagated from suckers.
However, propagation from the suckers is usually the preferred option as seeds take a very long time to germinate – seeds may take 6 to 12 months to germinate.
If you do want to grow the needle palm from seeds, sow them 1 to 2 cm deep in potting soil, in a container, in spring.
Place the container in a warm and bright location and keep the soil consistently moist (not wet).
Spring is the best time to propagate new growth from suckers.
Needle Palm Pest or Diseases
This palm species usually does not get affected by any serious pest or disease.
But, it sometimes may get affected by mealybugs and spider mites.
Overwatering or over-fertilizing can cause yellowing or browning of leaves.
When exposed to the scorching midday sun or getting too much part sun, without any protection, the plant may develop irregular brown spots on the leaves.
Rhapidophyllum Hystrix Uses
The needle palm tree is widely cultivated for ornamental purposes due to its evergreen foliage.
It makes a good addition of foliage mass to landscapes and is used as a foundation plant, textural accent, and walkway border plant.
The palm species is also grown as an understory shrub.
It is recommended to be careful and wear long sleeves clothes and protective gloves when working with this plant due to its sharp needle-like spines.
Rhapidophyllum hystrix is considered to be threatened in some areas due to its commercial exploitation.