Sabal palmetto (Arecaceae)
Origin: Gulf Coast and Southern Atlantic States of the U.S, Cuba, Bahamas
This month’s featured plant is near and dear to the hearts of many Floridians. Although not technically a tree, Sabal palmetto is the state tree of Florida (as well as South Carolina) and has played a proud role in the history of our state. Its trunks and leaves have been used in both indigenous and cracker construction, and its buds are good eating. Known colloquially as “swamp cabbage,” people north of the peninsula might know this delicacy as “hearts of palm.”
Cabbage palms are some of the most adaptable plants in Florida, which is an ecology made of adaptable plants. They grow in shady flooded swamps as well as sun-scorched prairie experiencing regular fire events. They are incredibly salt tolerant, drought tolerant, frost and freeze tolerant, and practically disease-free. When used in a landscape they require no additional fertilizer over the years, unlike most non-native ornamental palms. In other words, if you are looking to plant a palm, cabbage palms are the perfect choice, as they are perfectly adapted to pretty much every condition Florida has to offer.
Cabbage palms have costapalmate fronds which can grow several feet across at maturity. The palms can reach heights of forty to sixty feet, but regularly remain much shorter, even in late maturity. This is a result of genetics and growing conditions. In drier areas with full sun, the plants tend to stay short and squat, with yellowed fronds. In wetter, shadier sites, the plants reach for sunlight, their fronds almost blue. Another physiological variation in the species involves the “boots,” the remainder of the old petioles where the older fronds have dropped. Some specimens retain their boots well into old age, along the full length of the stem, while others shed them, exposing the smooth trunk beneath. The flowers of the cabbage palm are typical of the family; there is an inflorescence which protrudes from the mass of fronds to make itself accessible to pollinators. The flowers themselves are a yellowish white and only a few millimeters wide, but there are hundreds of them on the inflorescence, which can reach eight feet long. Dark berries follow the flowers; these fruits are beloved by our native wildlife, especially
We have cabbage palms all over the Gardens, all over Sarasota, and all over the state. They should all be blooming now.
Text by David Troxell