Cabbage Palm, A Symbolic Tree of the South

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Sabal Palmetto Palm, A Favored Landscape Plant of the South

Drayton Hall Sabal Palm
cabbage palm, palmetto, sabal palm. Photo by Steve Nix

Sabal palms or Sabal palmetto, also called cabbage and palmetto palm are monocotyledons with single seed leaves. The palmetto tree trunk grows more like grass than a typical tree trunk. Cabbage palms also do not have annual rings but grow segments of leaves at the top each year. The leaves are long with straight lines of parallel veins.

Capable of reaching 90 feet or more in the woods (when shaded or protected by surrounding trees) Sabal palmetto is usually seen at 40 to 50 feet in height. The palm is an amazingly sturdy native tree with a rough, fibrous trunk that is quite variable in shape, from straight and erect, to curved or leaning.

Palmetto is actually a name that comes from the Spanish word palmetto or little palm. It was probably misnamed because the tree is often seen as a small tree in the understory.

A great example of the Sabal palmetto grows on the grounds of Drayton Hall near Charleston, South Carolina and hugs the southern Atlantic coast well past Miami, Florida.

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Cabbage Palm - State Tree and Valuable in the Landscape

South Carolina's State Flag. South Carolina Tourism

Sabal palmetto is pronounced like SAY-bull pahl-MET-oh. The cabbage palm is South Carolina's and Florida's state tree. Cabbage palm is on the flag of South Carolina and on Florida's Great Seal. The common name "cabbage palm" comes from its edible, immature palm "heart" which has a cabbage-like flavor. Harvesting the palm heart is not suggested in valued landscapes as it is deleterious to both palm health and beautiful form.

This palm is well suited to use as a street planting, framing tree, displayed as a specimen, or clustered in informal groupings of varying size. Cabbage palm is ideal for seaside locations. The four to five-foot-long, creamy white, showy flower stalks in the summer are followed by small, shiny, green to black fruits which are relished by squirrels, raccoons, and other wildlife. There are no coconuts.

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Cabbage Palmetto as a Street and Landscape Plant

Sabal Palmettos on Charleston Street
Sabal Palmettos on Charleston Street. Photo by Steve Nix

Cabbage Palm is about as hurricane-proof as a tree can be. They stand after many hurricanes have blown over the oaks and snapped the pines in two. They adapt well to small cutouts in the sidewalk, and can even create shade if planted on 6 to 10 foot centers.

Newly transplanted palms need temporary structural support if moved after maturity. Typically transplanted palms that have substantial trunk heights are mounted with tripod board structures until a root support system is formed. Cleaning the trunk of leaf bases is essential for desirable form and to  eliminate a habitat for roaches when next to dwellings.

A new planting of sabals looks like a patch of utility poles from a distance. If these "poles" are managed properly and well watered they will soon put forth new roots and leaves within a few months. As mentioned, new trees should be staked or otherwise supported until established - especially in windy beachfront situations.

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Sabal Palms are Tough and Transplant Well

Sabal Palms Near Charleston Church
Sabal Palms Near Charleston Church. Photo by Steve Nix

Cabbage palms are the hardiest in the New World and do very well on most soils. The palm actually does very well in the inner South West and along the Southern West Coast where they are planted in the landscape in Phoenix, Las Vegas and San Diego. They are definitely not enjoyed just in the southern United States.

Sabal palm is extremely salt and drought tolerant and often used in beachside plantings as well as along city streets. Cabbage palms are easy to transplant and, commercially the palmetto is dug from the wild when there is, at least, six feet of trunk and all of the leaves are cut from the trunk (care is taken not to damage the tender top bud).

The young palms are transplanted from the field into large containers, taken to farms where environmental conditions are controlled for better survival rates. Palms with intact root systems and full canopies can be transplanted and careful root pruning 4–6 months before digging can increase transplant survival in palms and encourages optimal trunk heights. Sabal palms should always be transplanted at the same depth as they were originally growing.

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Diffent Variaties Improve Sabal Selection

Cabbage Palm in the Charleston Landscape
Cabbage Palm in the Charleston Landscape. Photo by Steve Nix

There are several varieties of Sabal Palm. Sabal peregrina, planted in Key West, grows to about 25 feet high. Sabal minor, a native Dwarf Palmetto, creates an exotic, usually stemless shrub, four feet high and wide. Older Dwarf Palmettos develop trunks to six feet tall. Sabal mexicana grows in Texas and looks similar to Sabal palmetto.

A new cultivar of Sabal palmetto has been discovered in South West Florida and named Sabal palmetto 'Lisa'.  The 'Lisa' palmetto has the normal fan-formed foliage but with traits that enhance the palm's form and desirability in the land and seascape. Being just as hardy to cold, salt, drought, fire and wind as the wild type of the species, 'Lisa" has a nurseryman favorite.

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Your Citation
Nix, Steve. "Cabbage Palm, A Symbolic Tree of the South." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Nix, Steve. (2021, September 3). Cabbage Palm, A Symbolic Tree of the South. Retrieved from Nix, Steve. "Cabbage Palm, A Symbolic Tree of the South." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).