Plant Collector: Rhopalostylis sapida

The ripening seed on the Pitt Island nikau palm

The ripening seed on the Pitt Island nikau palm

The botanical name for this native plant does not trip off the tongue easily. It is much easier to refer to it as a nikau palm. And yes, it is indeed a palm. In fact it is the world’s southernmost palm. This form is even more south eastern than most, as it is from Pitt Island. Nikaus are often regarded as very slow growing but it is curious fact that the variation that is endemic to the Chatham Islands (which includes Pitt) is much faster growing and sets viable seed years earlier than the mainland form. They are hardy throughout most of New Zealand (except for deep inland or alpine areas) but not widely seen internationally because they don’t like extremes of heat, dry conditions or the cloaking of cold, dry arctic air which is very different to the chilly air movement that we get with wintery blasts.

The handsome crown of the nikau palm

The handsome crown of the nikau palm

Nikaus are exceptionally handsome plants but they get large. This plant is already around eight metres to the top of its crown and the arching fronds are about four metres long. It will keep growing and get larger. In the juvenile stage, the unfurling fronds wrap around the whole plant and the shape is reminiscent of an old fashioned shaving brush or feather duster but that hardly does justice to these handsome plants. We find that they seed down very readily throughout our garden and we just dig out those plants in inappropriate places. They are not the easiest plant to transplant as they get larger. Their roots go straight down and you have dig well below the base plate to extricate them without damage. The seed turning red is a sign that it is ripe.