There aren’t a lot of quality landscape plant options that fit the description nearly every homeowner desires: native, low-maintenance, slow-growing, pest free, drought tolerant while tolerating wet soils, loving both sun or shade, and green year-round. Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is the rare plant that checks all those boxes and deserves consideration when adding plants to your landscape!
Needle Palm is an endangered native, growing in a narrow range in the coastal Southeastern US, Calhoun and Liberty counties included. It is primarily found in the understories of wet wooded areas along slopes, ravines, and bottoms; if you’ve ever hiked the Apalachicola Ravines or Torreya State Park trails, you’ve likely encountered Needle Palm in the wild! Being native is nice, but what makes Needle Palm an outstanding landscape option?
Needle Palm is the prettier, more refined cousin of Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens), which it is sometimes confused with. Unlike the rambling, aggressive, stiff-leaved palmetto, Needle palm possesses “softer”, finely cut, lustrous evergreen leaves, allowing it to add amazing texture to any landscape. Also, unlike palmetto, it doesn’t need a yearly “cleaning” to prune out brown, dead leaves, rather its leaves persist green and clean for many years! You might not want to reach into the interior of a Needle Palm plant anyway, as generally unseen 6-8” namesake “needles” surround the base of its trunk. Needle Palm grows very slowly, eventually reaching 8’ tall or so, but is more often seen in the 4-6’ range in landscapes. This is absolutely a shrub that will never outgrow its welcome. It is a nearly trunkless palm, almost always appearing as a shrub, though with extreme old age it can begin to look a bit like a small tree with a muted trunk. With outstanding aesthetics and a low-maintenance growth habit, Needle Palm has a place in nearly any landscape.
In the landscape, Needle Palm does best when sited with some shade in the afternoon but also thrives in full sun. They appreciate regular water during establishment but survive on their own without any extra irrigation after! Needle Palm also doesn’t need much in the way of supplemental fertilization. They do look their best with a light spring application of a general purpose, slow-release fertilizer, but this is not required. Needle Palms are not afflicted with the pest and pathogen problems the much more commonly used non-native Sago Palms (Cycas revlolutas) attracts. I’ve grown Needle Palm for 6 years in the landscape and have never noticed any pest or disease issues. With Needle Palms becoming more common in the nursery trade, I don’t see a place in most landscapes for the inferior, high-maintenance, insect infested Sagos. If you want the tropical, textured look of Sagos, plant Needle Palm instead.
Needle Palm is an extremely attractive, low-maintenance Northwest Florida native plant that you should absolutely seek out and add to your landscape! If you want more information or have any questions about Needle Palm or any other landscape/garden topic, please give us a call at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension Office. Happy Gardening!