The cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto) is the state tree of both Florida and South Carolina. A native tree steeped in history, cabbage palms have been used for centuries by indigenous peoples and settlers to the area for food, medicine and building materials.
In addition, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians and even other plants depend on this important tree for survival.
July is a wonderful time of year to stop and gaze up into the canopies of these stately native trees as they burst into full bloom. You will observe graceful sprays of creamy white flowers billowing out of the strongly recurved leaves, softening their edges.
There are likely to be throngs of pollinating beetles, honeybees and native bees busily gathering nectar and pollen among the clouds of flowers.
Cabbage palms can be found growing in maritime forests and coastal plains from Florida to North Carolina, and as far south as Cuba and the Bahamas. More closely related to grasses than typical deciduous or coniferous forest species, cabbage palms are evergreen, shedding dead leaves as new ones emerge from the center bud. After flowering, large quantities of shiny black fruits are produced.
Some homeowners and landscapers choose to remove the flowers or fruit for a neater appearance in the landscape. However, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the fruit “provides a substantial part of the diet of many animals such as deer, bear, raccoon, squirrel, bobwhite and wild turkey.”
While this pruning practice does not harm the tree, removing flowers and subsequent fruit could negatively impact fall food sources for wildlife, including many common coastal birds such as herons, gulls, crows, fish crows, woodpeckers, robins and blue jays.
Normally single trunked, cabbage palms are naturally hurricane-resistant, remaining upright and rarely losing a leaf in high winds. In cultivation, their strong trunks are straight, reaching up to 40 feet, but in the forest, they may bend to find light and can ultimately reach up to 65 feet tall.
The practice of severe over-pruning known as a “hurricane cut” does not make them more resistant to storms but may make them more susceptible to diseases, damaging insects and nutritional deficiencies.
Older leaves with yellow or brown spots, which can be a sign of potassium deficiency, should be left on the tree. Cabbage palms are able to redistribute the potassium left in the older leaves throughout the plant. Removing green or even browning leaves prematurely can cause further symptoms.
Removing fully brown, dead leaves, however, will not harm the trees. Ultimately, if left on the tree, the dead leaves will drop off, leaving the leaf bases commonly referred to as “boots.”
For more information on nutritional issues, diseases, and insects affecting cabbage palms go to http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st575.
As a general pruning guideline, the University of Florida Extension Service recommends “no more leaves be removed than would represent the hands of a clock in the 9 to 3 positions.” The beautiful full canopy of leaves provides a natural shelter for frogs and bats that control mosquitoes and other insects.
In addition, the fibers that fray from the edges of the leaves provide nesting materials for many birds. Epiphytic plants, such as ferns and native orchids, germinate in the damp crevices created by the leaf bases while vines occasionally use the rough surfaces as a natural trellis.
Cabbage palms are versatile in the landscape, making them great choices for tough spots like sidewalk cutouts and parking lots. Mature cabbage palms are noted to survive transplantation more readily than young, immature trees. This is quite different from most other types of trees used in ornamental landscapes, which often fare better when transplanted early.
When dug for transplanting, the severed roots of mature palmettos die back to the trunk and never recover, however, older trees can produce new, fast growing adventitious roots quickly.
In addition, larger trees (more than 10 feet tall) use water stored in the trunk to sustain them during the establishment period.
To aid survival during this transition, nursery professionals remove the leaves to reduce water use. This is an extreme measure that should only be done during transplanting.
Research shows that removing all the leaves and protecting the bud during transport can lead to a 95 percent survival rate.
With regular irrigation and proper planting, transplanted palms fully recover their canopies, adding beauty and value to the landscape.
Amy L. Dabbs is a Clemson University Cooperative Extension Horticulture Agent and Master Gardener Coordinator. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next Tri-County Master Gardener Training Course for Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties will begin Sept. 15. The course is a volunteer training program that requires 12 weeks of intensive instruction in the fundamentals of basic horticulture. Participants must complete 40 hours of volunteer service including staffing county offices between the hours of 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. weekdays.
Students selected for this training class will meet Thursdays from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at various locations. Apply online at http://goo.gl/forms/EgaNUH3pcD.