On Gardening

Native needle palm offers cold-hardy touch of the tropics

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceFebruary 8, 2013 


The needle palm is the most cold-hardy palm for the landscape allows the tropical look much further north than many expect.


The tropical look is so popular, gardeners across the country are looking for palms, bananas and any plants that will call to mind that steel drum atmosphere of the islands. If you find yourself in that group, remember the needle palm.

Across the south, from Mississippi to South Carolina, you’ll see beautiful low-lying areas full of these native palms – known botanically as Rhapidophyllum hystrix. These palms offer lush, tropical and exotic vibes to those who pass by them, and this is precisely what they can do for your landscape.

The needle palm is perfect around a swimming pool or water feature. It excels at flanking a home’s front entrance, which is how we use them at the Columbus (Ga.) Botanical Garden. They also look exotic as understory plants beneath large trees like oaks or bald cypress. If you are fortunate to have a dry stream bed or are thinking of creating one, you could not ask for a better group of plants to cluster. Even if you have water that is moving through the creek, the needle palm will look most at home.

The needle palm is the most-cold hardy you can grow, appearing in landscapes as far north as Cincinnati, Ohio. So if you want the Caribbean-style garden, why not partner it with the Japanese fiber banana that survives equally frigid temperatures, even returning from zero? The needle palm is cold hardy to zone 6 and even 5 with a little southeast-side-of-the-house protection – colder areas than North Carolina’s Piedmont, which lies in zones 7 and 8. An Internet search will show you gardeners who are using them way outside the hardiness zone.

Even if you don’t want the tropical look but appreciate the texture, you may want to duplicate the look; In the South, they typically are partnered with azaleas. Try them underneath your tall trees with rhododendrons of all species, and shrubs like viburnums, and you’ll have a landscape worthy of a painting.

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