Serenoa repens (Arecaceae)
Origin: Southeastern United States
Florida is a land of many habitats. Coastal dunes, river banks, dry scrub, wet prairie, and pinelands all vary from each other, and all feature different plants. They also feature some of the same plants. One they all share in common is saw palmetto. Bane to the existence of early explorers and modern botanists alike, it gets its common name from the minutely-toothed petioles, which can really do a number on your shins when hiking through a dense clump of the small palms. Unlike most palms, which feature a vertical trunk and grow to be very tall, saw palmetto forms a trunk which scrambles around on top of the ground, sometimes for many meters. When they do grow vertically, they rarely reach over three or four meters tall.
Individual plants can take on many different growth forms, depending on which habitat they are growing in. Plants found in deep shade reach for the light, with thinner leaflets and more of a green or blue color. Plants found growing on Florida’s east coast are blue and silver in color; most plants inland and toward the west coast are green, turning bright yellow in full sun. Plants growing in scrub or prairie which regularly burns rarely reach more than a meter tall, forming whole prairies of saw palmetto infused with wildflowers and grasses. The blooms and fruits are typical of palms; long inflorescences with many compound flowers, white and fragrant and attractive to all kinds of bees and other flying insects, followed by dozens of marble-sized spherical fruits, green ripening to black. A variety of animals feed on the fruit, including raccoon and other small mammals. The fruits are also purported to promote prostate health and are used as a holistic medicine to treat prostate cancer.
These are long-lived plants, continuing to snake their trunks under and along the surface of the ground for hundreds of years. Plants which are regularly maintained by fire and kept “short” are deceptive, as they look as though they had just emerged from the soil a few years ago. They may have been growing on that same prairie back when Florida was Spain, burning every few years in lightning-fueled fires. Serenoa repens makes a great landscaping plant as long as it is given the room it needs to mature. They can also be pruned back hard every few years. A large patch of saw palmetto can be found blooming just west of the Selby Cafe, on the west side of the sidewalk—come take a look!
Text by David Troxell