Sabal palmetto

sabal palm


Sabal palmetto

(Walter) Lodd. ex Schult. & Schult.f. 1830

pronounced: SAY-bal pahl-MET-oh

(Arecaceae — the palm family)


common names: sabal palm, cabbage palm

The derivation of Sabal is unknown; palmetto means ‘little palm’.
This is one of some 15 species of the genus, and is native to the southeastern USA, Cuba, and the Bahamas. In the USA it was originally found near the coast from St Andrews Bay in the Florida panhandle to the extreme south coast of Virginia, and throughout most of the Florida peninsula. It is now found throughout most of the southern parts of the USA, even in areas not normally associated with palm trees.

The Sabal Palm grows up to 20 m in height, with exceptional individuals up to about 28 m, and with a trunk up to 60 cm in diameter. It is a distinct fan palm with a bare petiole that extends as a centre spine or midrib into a rounded, costapalmate fan of numerous leaflets, the leaves markedly recurved. Each leaf is 1.5 – 2 m long, with 40 – 60 leaflets each up to 80 cm long.

The flowers are yellowish white, about 5 mm across, produced in large compound panicles up to 2.5 m long, extending out beyond the leaves. The fruit is a black drupe about 1.3 cm long, containing a single seed.
Maintenance of the tree is easy and adaptable. It tolerates drought, standing water and brackish water; but it does thrive on regular light watering and regular feeding. It is highly tolerant of salt winds, but not of saltwater flooding.

The trunk of this palm can appear in two different guises, which can be confusing when it comes to identifying the species. When leaves die, the leaf bases typically persist for a while, creating a spiky, ‘basketweave’ effect (the remnant leaf bases are known as ‘bootjacks’, or ‘boots’ for short, for the old Y-shaped device formerly used for taking off boots). Transplanted palms are sometimes deliberately shorn of these bootjacks. Taller specimens are more likely to have lost their bootjacks and appear relatively smooth and columnar. As the trunk is revealed, its surface is a rough, fibrous brown; but eventually the surface will age to grey and become smooth. The loss of these bootjacks is a natural, if poorly-understood, phenomenon.

Unlike many other palms, the Sabal Palm has no crownshaft, but the leaves emerge directly from the trunk. The growing heart of the new fronds, which takes the place of the terminal bud, gives the tree its ‘cabbage’ name, since this is extracted as a food. The palm is one of several species used to make heart of palm salad, which was commonly eaten by American Indians. However, the practice eventually destroys the tree, because the terminal bud is the only point from which the palm can grow, and its loss means that the palm will not be able to replace its old leaves, and will eventually die.

This is the state tree of Florida, and is also displayed on the state flag of South Carolina. The durable trunks are sometimes used for wharf pilings and poles. Brushes and brooms can be made from young leaves, and the adult leaves are used by the Seminole Indians in Florida as thatch for their traditional pavilions.


Photographs taken at Nelly Bay 2009
Page last updated 27th March 2019