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Needle Palm

My needle palm looks quite perky after a 17 degree night.

Last night the mercury dipped to 17 degrees and signaled the unofficial beginning of winter here in my little world.

The dramatic temperature drop and the fierce wind that accompanied knocked the leaves off most of the trees.

This morning the camellia flowers had turned to brown mush.

When I gazed out the back window, however, the needle palm reigned supreme.

The needle palm in my back garden is beautiful in every season.  It is particularly striking in winter like a tropical mirage amongst the bare branches.

Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is a small shrubby palm with fan shaped evergreen leaves.

This needle palm is in my own Lauderdale County, Mississippi perched on the banks of Okatibbee Creek.

It is native to Florida , Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina.

The Needle Palm, however, will thrive much further north than its natural range and is possibly the the most cold hardy palm in the world.

I have a lot of native plants in my garden and I incoporated most of them after seeing them in their native habitats.

The needle palm earned a place because of its hardiness claim to fame.  I purchased a 5 year old gallon sized plant from Plant Delights Nursery without ever having seen it in a natural setting.   I made an educated guess and planted it as an understory plant on a gentle slope in my back garden.   I sited it close enough to my deck and to the walkway for easy viewing.  My palm has been in the ground for over 12 years so it is pushing 20.   It is about 5 feet tall with an equal or greater spread.

Earlier this year, I finally did see needle palm in the wild on a trip to Torreya State Park which is in the Florida panhandle.    The palms were blooming in clusters near the ground.  Since they are dioecious, there are “boy” and “girl” palms.   The flowers on the showy staminate (male) plants were blooming among the clusters of sharp slender spines or “needles” at the crown of the plant.

I was excited to see my first needle palms in Florida but then in late summer I discovered a large population of them on a friend’s land in my own county.  The land is on steep slopes that overlook Okatibbee Creek.

Fuzzy needle palm fruit is nestled in the wicked spines that give this palm its name.

The day before Thanksgiving I visited the site for a second time.  I very carefully collected the fuzzy oval fruit that was  nestled among the wickedly sharp needles.

I hope to clean and plant the seed soon.  I am excited to grow needle palm from seed but most importantly, the pulp is emitting a very funky odor and I need to get it out of my house!

Later that day my friend Keith Hayes and I floated down Okatibbee Creek adjacent to his land and found more needle palms perched on the creek banks.

So now I have seen needle palm in flower, in fruit and in my own county.

I am increasingly more impressed with the landscape value of this wonderful palm.

Without ever encountering it in the wild, I stumbled onto an appropriate site for my little palm in my own back yard.

It is a stellar member of my winter garden.

I just wish that I had given it a little more room to grow.    Needle palm is reported to reach 8′ with an equal spread.  Now, in year 20-ish, it is crowding the walk and I’m thinking the walk might have to go.


 

Tea, anyone?

Tea camellia is blooming now in my garden.

Yesterday I rambled around in the garden. It was a rainy Sunday morning and I was delighted to find that my tea camellias were in bloom.

Tea camellias bloom with the ornamental sasanqua camellias each fall.   Their nodding creamy blossoms have a pleasant scent and are full of golden stamens.

I grow them in my shaded back yard using the same culture as I would for other camellias.   In the Deep South, they are fine garden plants with dark green oblong leaves.  The foliage is evergreen with coarse teeth.

I enjoy the tea camellia’s understated blooms which are produced in abundance.  Their glossy evergreen leaves definitely brighten the winter landscape.  However I really like the fact that I am growing a piece of history in my garden.

Tea camellia (Camellia sinensis) has been cultivated in China for over 3000 years.  Young leaves and buds are the source of white tea, green tea, black tea and oolong tea.

The differences  between all the types of tea has to do with the timing of the harvest and the treatment after harvest.   Darjeeling tea and white tea come from the first picking of the year using very tender growth and buds.  Green tea is dried for a very short time.  Oolong is dried for a few hours allowing it to ferment a bit.  Black tea is crushed or bruised and allowed to dry and ferment for a few days.  One of my favorites, Kukicha Twig Tea, is made from tea camellia stems and twigs rather than leaves.

Tea camellia thrives in Zone 7b gardens and those further south.

So far, I’ve only used my tea camellias as ornamentals.  I have been vowing that I will soon try to harvest and produce tea from them.  In my garden as understory shrubs, tea camellia is an open shrub that can reach 10′ tall.

In cultivation these large shrubs are planted in sun and maintained at a height less than 3′.  This allows for a dense plant with lots of tender new growth.

If  I’m serious about this tea thing, I think that I should get a few more tea camellias and plant them on the sunny hill overlooking my herb garden.

I could then repeatedly shear the tender new growth and process it into tea.   It would be kind of like growing a veal calf.

Or… I could allow the tea camellias that I already have to continue gracing my shade garden.  I could look forward to the creamy fall flowers, enjoy the glossy winter foliage and pick a little tender new growth for tea making each spring.

Either way, being a Southerner, I have been been drinking iced tea since I was a small child.  I look forward to the adventure of processing my own.  It’s just a matter of which method I will embrace.


 

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