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Florida Feature: The Sabal Palm

field trips floridaIn 1953, the Florida legislature determined the Sabal palmetto (or “cabbage palm”) to be the Florida state tree, and, by 1970, the sabal palm replaced the cocoa palm on our state seal. However, if you’re a stickler for details, it’s worth noting that our state tree isn’t a tree at all. The sabal palm is a grass.

Growing up to heights of 70 feet, the sabal palm has a single, unbranching trunk and a mighty crown of pointed fronds. The fronds grow from a single, tender bud, protected in the crisscross pattern of leaf “boots” that we typically see in the cabbage palm. This bud, or “heart,” is what gives the sabal palm its “cabbage palm” alias: Seminole Indians and Florida crackers harvested the bud and prepared it in a traditional dish similar to stewed cabbage with fatback, called “swamp cabbage.” Hearts of palm, often used in salads and easily acquired in cans at the grocery store, are commercial uses of the sabal palm. However, harvesting this bud kills the sabal palm, and many advocates for this tree advise against buying hearts of palm as they are usually taken from wild stands of palms in Central America and Mexico, where they are also native plants.

The boot, or the base of the frond still attached to the trunk, denotes a young sabal palm. When the tress are mature and their stem is thick enough, the boots disappear and the trunk smoothes out. In Florida lore, these frond base protrusions came to be known as boots by Spanish Conquistadors who used them in lieu of shoehorns or, as another story goes, the U.S. Army hung their boots on them during the Seminole Wars to keep snakes and other critters from crawling in their shoes at night.

The Seminole Indians have a unique relationship with the sabal palm, using all its parts for food and shelter. The fronds were harvested and secured as roofing material for Seminole chickees, and the fronds’ natural waterproofing proved a life-saver during the Florida wet season. The fibrous hairs between the boots and the trunk can be twisted together to make twine, and these hairs also make fantastic starter fuel for fires. Sabal palm trunks can be used as pilings, and their hearts and berries make meals for humans, birds and bears.

A fascinating, useful and surprisingly sturdy grass, the sabal palm deserves a lot of respect and honor as our state tree. Over the years, it has given us food and shelter, and today the sabal palm stands as a recognizable emblem for the beauty of wild Florida.