Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto) is native to the subtropical Gulf coast and the south Atlantic coast of the United States, Cuba, and the Bahamas. It is the most widely distributed palm in Florida, and it is the state tree of Florida and South Carolina.
The tree grows with a single trunk to a height of 20 to 65 feet with a trunk diameter of up to 2 feet.
As shown at right, the fronds (leaves) are fan- shaped. Each frond is 5 to 6.5 feet long and consists of 40 to 60 leaflets that arch backwards. Each leaflet is up to 2.6 feet long. As shown below, a bare petiole extends as a center midrib into the palmate fan.
New leaves develop at the terminal bud at the top of the tree. Lower leaves age, turn brown and fall to the ground, leaving part of the leaf stem. Because of the structure's shape, the leaf stem is referred to as a "boot jack."
Because boot jacks accumulate organic debris and moisture, they provide habitat for a variety of organisms. Strangler figs are commonly found living in boot jacks, as are golden polypody and shoestring ferns, insects, tree frogs, skinks, and rats. Boot jacks rot and eventually fall off the trunk. At far right, a strangler fig and polypody ferns are living on a cabbage palm.
In a fire, boot jacks burn off, but the tree itself can survive.
A cabbage palm is protected during a fire because its moisture-carrying tubules are located in the center of its trunk. The outside of the tree can be burned, while the tubules can survive. (Note the photograph at left that shows a cross section of its trunk). This arrangement of transporting vessels is different from the position of the transporting vessels (xylem and phloem) just beneath the bark in hardwood trees (e.g. oaks and maple trees).
As shown in the four photographs below, cabbage palms have flowers that begin as green buds (photograph 1) and blossom into white flowers (photograph 2). Green fruits form (photograph 3), ripen in the fall, and darken in color (photograph 4). Fruits are small, mostly seed, and a favorite food of birds, squirrels, and raccoons.
Cabbage palms have many uses:
1) Each year in February, a swamp cabbage festival takes place in La Belle, Florida. The terminal bud or “cabbage” (called heart-of-palm) is a delicacy to eat, both raw and cooked. However, removal of the terminal bud will kill the tree. Cabbage palms are protected by conservation law.
In Ecuador and Costa Rica, the Bactris gasipaes palm is raised for the purpose of harvesting and exporting "heart-of-palm" to other countries, including the United States. Removing a terminal bud from that multi-trunked palm does not harm kill the tree.
2) Cabbage palms are used for landscaping. They are both salt tolerant and frost tolerant.
3) Dark amber honey is made by bees from the nectar collected from the flowers.
4) Cabbage palm leaves are used by Native Americans to construct chickee roofs.
5) Native Americans have used the tiny seeds and berries as a remedy for headaches and to lower fevers.
6) Historically, Native Americans have used the fiber and lumber to construct dwellings, paddles, drying mats and frames, binding materials, and arrows.
© Photographs and text by Susan Leach Snyder (Conservancy of Southwest Florida Volunteer).
Please report errors to Susan Snyder @ firstname.lastname@example.org