Cabbage palm

Sabal palmetto
Family: Arecaceae

Natural Historycabbage palm
Cabbage palms
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

Although it doesn't produce true wood like a tree, the cabbage palm is a tall, iconic symbol of southeastern coastal environments and has therefore been named the state tree of both Florida and South Carolina. It is found across most of the Florida peninsula and plays an important part in many ecosystems, providing both food and habitat to many animal species. Because these plants are monocots, they do not show any secondary growth or widen with age. They only grow upwards, keeping a clump of green leaves at the top of a skinny, bare trunk.

Habitat & Range

Cabbage palm (or "sabal palm") can be found growing in a variety of soils in several Florida ecosystems, including upland hardwoods, flatwoods, oak hammocks, swamp forests, coastal marches, and tropical hammocks. Because it tolerates high water tables, it can also grow well in swamps, wet prairie, and coastal marshes. It may occur as single trees or groves of palms and it is also frequently planted in urban areas. The cabbage palm is found from southeastern North Carolina to the Florida Keys and is also native to the Bahamas and Cuba.

Wildlife Use

Producing massive quantities of fruit every year, the drupes of the cabbage palm are a large component of the diet of many animals such as deer, bear, raccoon, squirrel, bobwhite, and wild turkey. Various birds and squirrels nest in the crown and the trunks sometimes bear holes excavated by woodpeckers.

Human Use

Cabbage palm has probably been used by humans for thousands of years. The plant gets its common name from the tender, edible portion of the central bud that can be cut from the tree and eaten raw or cooked. The taste and texture is said to be similar to cabbage. (Unfortunately, cutting the central meristem kills the tree.) Seminole Indians made homes roofed with cabbage palm fronds and wove baskets, mats, and hats from strips of leaves. The also used the fiber from young leaf bases for making brushes. Early European settlers in the southeast used cabbage palm trunks as logs for cabin walls and dock pilings.

Today, the most common use for cabbage palm is as a landscaping tree. The plants are slow to grow from seed, so full-grown trees are commonly transplanted and installed for landscaping. The central bud and palm fronds are also gathered and sold to churches to make Palm Sunday crosses.

 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Cabbage palm is a medium-sized tree that reaches heights of 60 to 80 feet and 1 to 2 feet in diameter. It has a straight, unbranched trunk with a clump of leaves at the top of the stem. There are usually about 40 living leaves on well-developed crowns. Numerous dead leaves often hang, skirting the trunk beneath the crown of living leaves. The leaf bases (boots) usually persist for several years before crumbling and falling away.
Leaves: Individual leaves are extremely large, with a petiole 4 to 5 feet long and a blade that can be up to 5 feet long and 5 feet wide. The leaf blade is costapalmate, which means that it has a thickened midrib called a "costa" that runs from the end of the petiole through the length of the blade. The plicatations (folds) in the blade come off both the base and the costa and extend outwards. The costa in a cabbage palm leaf is strongly reflexed, meaning that it bends sharply toward the underside of the leaf. Each petiole is quite long and very stout, reaching 4 to 5 feet in length and 1 to 2 inches wide. Unlike the petiole on the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), the petiole of the cabbage palm is unarmed. As the palm grows, the base of each petiole splits where it meet the trunk, forming a v-shaped gap. The petiole bases can remain on the tree for several years, but they eventually fall off to leave a bare trunk.
Twigs: Branching is rare among palms but may be present if tree has been damaged (i.e. from lightning, mechanical abrading, or a genetic disorder).
Bark: The gray to brown bark has shallow furrows circling the stem and is often covered with persistent, dead leaf bases.
Flowers: The flowers are bisexual and appear on branched stalks that protrude from the trunk similar distance as that of the leaves or more. These flowers are fragrant.
Fruit: The fruit is a smooth, round and shiny black drupe ¼ to ¾ inch long in diameter and borne in clusters on long stems. Each drupe contains one small, dark brown seed.
Similar Plants on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • Saw palmetto is the other palm on the list. Saw palmetto is usually a creeping, branching shrub differing from the slender tree form of cabbage palm. Saw palmetto also has leafstalks armed with small spines along the margins discontinuing at the base of the fan-shaped blades.

 

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