Today’s southernmost occurring palm is Rhopalostylis sapida, better known as the nikau palm or the feather duster palm. The nikau palm is endemic to New Zealand and is the country's only native palm that is alive today. "Nikau" means "leaves only" in Maori and perhaps refers to the fact that unlike the coconut palm that the early Maori would have been familiar with, the nikau palm does not produce fruits that are edible to humans. It gets its other common name from the smooth, swollen crown shaft and the upright palm leaves that give the appearance of a feather duster pointed upwards. The silhouette of the nikau palm is striking with its erect, feather-shaped fronds and ringed trunk. Many are tempted to guess the age of the palm by counting the leaf scars left on the trunk when a frond falls off. However, this is unreliable because as many as five fronds may be lost over the course of the year, and the palm does not begin to grow upwards for 10-15 years.
The palm is monoecious, meaning that both male and female flowers are produced by the same individual. The inflorescence emerges beneath the crown shaft after a frond falls off. The long inflorescences burst forth with light pink to purple-mauve flowers that mature in groups of three-two male flowers for every female flower. The fruit change from bright green to bright red as they ripen over the course of a few months. Although they are not edible to humans, birds, such as New Zealand's native wood pigeon, are known to love to eat them-and disperse them.
Traditionally, the Maori have used the palm for many different things. Although the fruit are not edible, the inflorescences are, a fact which gives the species epithet its name "sapida" meaning savory or pleasant to taste. Additionally, the palm fronds were used for many things, from roof thatching to material for weaving mats, containers, and clothing.
Although this palm is notoriously slow-growing, it is one of the finest palms for coastal, temperate climates. It requires shelter when young but can tolerate sun once well-established. With regular water, fertilizer, and shelter from the wind, this palm will slowly grow to thirty feet tall. Some sources even suggest that this palm may make an excellent indoor plant because it does not grow upward for several years.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text and profile by Sarah Callan. Photos by Joanne Taylor and Mona Bourell.