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Sabal Palm
sabal palm
Sabal palm, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in October 2014.
sabal palm

They're everywhere! They're everywhere! Which is one reason why the sabal palm, aka cabbage palm, Sabal palmetto, is Florida's state tree. That, plus its importance culturally and ecologically.

The sabal palm is a member of the Areaceae family and technically not a tree. It's range wraps around the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, from Texas to North Carolina, and usually found no further than 75 miles inland. It's found in just about every Florida county and in just about every Florida habitat. It's also native to Cuba and the Bahamas.

Sabal palms are typically 30 or 40 feet high, but can be much taller. The leaves are compound and fan-shaped and can be six feet or more in length. The trunk is marked with the bases of old leaves, or what are called boots (see the photo below). They put out large flower spikes, which attract honey bees. Those flowers, in turn, produce a small, sweet berry that is a favorite food for birds and small mammals, including woodpeckers, mockingbirds, robins and raccoons.

Monk skipper butterflies use sabal palms as a host plant for their young. Other butterflies take nectar from the flowers.

Those boots can be home for birds, rodents and other animals. They're also convenient places for the seeds of strangler figs to germinate. Ferns also can take root in them. In time, a strangler fig will kill off its host, but even in death sabal palms play an important role in Florida's ecology by providing cover and nesting places for a variety of animals.

They are considered the most wind resistent tree growing in South Florida. They're also insect and disease resistent, making them a popular choice for landscaping, either as an accent tree or as a barrier.

sabal palm boots

Seminoles used sabal palms in constructing their homes. The log were used to construct the frames, while the leaves became thatch for the roofs. The logs also would be split, and the planks used to make a floor. They made a fiber from the tree to hold everything together.

Seminoles used the berries and seeds as a treatment for headaches and fever, and also for food. Parts of the leaves became arrows, staff and sticks for games. They made a variety of utensils as well, including food paddles and drying frames. They even made a fish poison from sabal palms. The Choctaw and Houma similarly used the tree.

The reason why sabal palm is also known as the cabbage palm is because of edible terminal leaf bud, which some say has a cabbage taste to it and was used to make a dish called swamp cabbage. However, harvesting the bud kills the tree. Eat the Weeds says the taste raw is more like artichokes; cooked, like asparagus. The site also says the natives didn't eat the buds until Europeans introduced metal axes.

Photographs by David Sedore
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