Rhopalostylis sapida

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sapida (sah-PEE-duh)
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Var. 'Chatham Island'. Darold giving scale. "Darold has great drainage with his deep sandy soil and is situated in the Sunset area of San Francisco where foggy and overcast conditions persist for weeks in Summer with temperatures in nmidsummer sometimes not exceeding 60 F ( 16 c )." (Troy Donovan). Darold Petty Garden. Photo by Troy Donovan
Scientific Classification
Genus: Rhopalostylis
sapida (sah-PEE-duh)
None set.
Native Continent
Habit: Solitary
Leaf type: Pinnate
Survivability index
Common names
Nikau palm, Shaving Brush Palm.

Habitat and Distribution

Endemic to Chatham Is., New Zealand North, New Zealand South. North Island, and South Island from Marlborough Sounds and Nelson south to Okarito in the west and Banks Peninsula in the east. Also on Chatham and Pitt Islands. However Chatham Islands plants have a distinct juveniel form, larger fruits, and thicker indumentum on the fronds. Primarily a species of coastal to lowland forest in the warmer parts of New Zealand. (nzpcn.org)


The Nikau palm shows considerable variation in the wild. Plants from the South Island and the offshore islands of the North Island have larger, more gracefully arching fronds and are popular in cultivation. The Chatham Islands form is particularly different, having a distinct juvenile form and larger fruits, and a thicker covering of fine hairs on the fronds. More research is needed into its precise relationship with the mainland form. The New Zealand Nikau palm is very similar to Rhopalostylis baueri of the Kermadecs and Norfolk Island, which can be distinguished by its more rounded or oval fruits, and by its leaflets which are broader than those found in most populations of R. sapida.


Palm to 15 m tall with a ringed trunk and 3 m long erect leaves inhabiting lowland forest south to Okarito and Banks Peninsula and the Chatham Islands. Leaves with multiple narrow leaflets to 1 m long closely-spaced along central stem. Flowers pinkish, in multiple spikes at the top of trunk. Fruit red. (nzpcn.org)

Trunk up to 15 m, stout, covered in grey-green leaf scars, otherwise green. Crownshaft 0.6 (-1) m long, dark green, smooth, bulging. Fronds up to 3 m long; leaflets to 1 m, closely set (sometimes over lapping), ascending. Spathes about 300 x 150 mm., between pink and yellow, caducous. Inflorescence shortly stalked, with many branches, 200-400 mm long. Flowers sessile, unisexual, tightly packed, lilac to pink. Males in pairs, caducous, stamens 6. Females solitary, with minute staminodes, ovary 1-locular, stigmas terminal, recurved, persistent. Fruit about 10 x 7 mm, elliptic-oblong, flesh red. (nzpcn.org)

Trunk to about 12 m. × 25 cm., green between rather closely spaced leaf-scars; crownshaft to 60 cm. long, smooth and green, slightly bulging. Leaf to 3 m. long; leaflets to 1 m. long, closely set and ascending sharply. Spathes about 30 × 15 cm., between pink and yellow, smooth, falling as first flowers open. Ultimate branches of inflorescence. to about 20–(30) cm. long, about 1.5 cm. in diam. with buds on, at first pale cream-coloured; flower-buds tightly packed, lilac Fragrance, about 10 × 7 mm., elliptic-oblong, brick-red. Seed long-oval, tightly invested in smooth, whitish endocarp which is marked by mainly longitudinal vascular strands; hilum broad at chalazal end, tapering to a narrow groove beside the micropyle. (nzpcn.org)


PROPAGATION TECHNIQUE: Easy from seed. Fruit should be soaked for a few days in water and then lightly scrubbed to clear the flesh, then place in sealed plastic bags in half shade until seed begins to germinate. Plant germinating seed in deep, narrow pots. Avoid disturbing the roots as much as possible. An excellent pot plant, and provided the tap root is left intact it can be easily transplanted. Quite hardy. Very variable in the wild, so could benefit from critical horticultural selection. (nzpcn.org)

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Comments and Curiosities

This is a tillering palm, it exhibits saxophone style root growth (it has a heel), keep top third of heel above soil elevation!

Uses: Maori found many uses for the Nikau palm. The bases of the inner leaves were eaten raw or cooked, also the young flower clusters. Food was wrapped in the leaves for cooking, and the old fibrous leaves were used for baskets, floor mats, and waterproof thatch for buildings.

Etymology: Rhopalostylis: In Latin, literally, 'club style'. sapida: 'savoury'. Nīkau is a Māori word; in the closely related Eastern Polynesian languages of the tropical Pacific, it refers to the fronds or the midrib of the coconut palm.

External Links


Phonetic spelling of Latin names by edric.

Special thanks to Geoff Stein, (Palmbob) for his hundreds of photos.

Special thanks to Palmweb.org, Dr. John Dransfield, Dr. Bill Baker & team, for their volumes of information and photos.

Glossary of Palm Terms; Based on the glossary in Dransfield, J., N.W. Uhl, C.B. Asmussen-Lange, W.J. Baker, M.M. Harley & C.E. Lewis. 2008. Genera Palmarum - Evolution and Classification of the Palms. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. All images copyright of the artists and photographers (see images for credits).

Many Special Thanks to Ed Vaile for his long hours of tireless editing and numerous contributions.

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