That palmetto tree in your yard didn't come from the Palmetto State.
Or at least, that was usually the case in the 28 years Ollie Olivier sold palms in the Charleston area and beyond. Olivier usually imported the state's signature tree from Florida, where the sabal palmetto — commonly called the "swamp cabbage" down there — still grows naturally in thick stands in forests.
Regardless of where it was sourced, the palmetto remains an icon of the state, and these days, a signature of new developments and neighborhoods as people move to the coast for work or retirement.
"Your tract home builders, they put one palmetto in each yard because they're selling to a bunch of people from up north, so everyone wants a palm tree in their yard," said Olivier, who retired and sold his business about a year ago.
But the tree's history as a marketing tool, and a symbol of the state, goes back even further.
The sabal palmetto has traditionally been a native species in coastal zones from the Florida peninsula up to Cape Hatteras, N.C. In recent times, they've both spread (along the Gulf coast, through ornamental planting) and retreated (wild trees are now only found as far north as Bald Head Island, N.C.).
"We see it planted in full sun and that’s sort of a natural scenario for it, it would be growing in a light gap in a traditional maritime forest" said Joel Gramling, a botanist at the Citadel. "Over time, they're usually out-competed. The forest grows up around it."
Palmetto logs and palm fronds were building materials for native people along the South Carolina coast starting in pre-colonial times, as a 1663 explorer spotted indigenous homes on a sailing voyage. In 1776, however, the trees were written into the state's history in a more prominent way when they absorbed the blows of British cannonballs at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island.
The "spongy" trees didn't help absorb the impact alone, said historian Nic Butler; the reality is, the sand supporting them probably helped as well.
Regardless, it was almost a century until the tree landed on the state flag, in 1861. While Charleston had adopted the nickname "The Palmetto City" as early as the 1830s, Butler said, the tree didn't become a visual icon until it was used as a symbol of the state's independence in the run-up to secession.
Palmettos were rarely planted on purpose. In the 1800s, the city of Charleston focused more on planting trees with broad canopies, to shade the sidewalks, Butler said.
After the Civil War left Charleston battered, it took again another century (and another war) until the palmetto gained prominence again. After WWII, the automobile era boomed, and Charleston sought to differentiate itself from other driving destinations. The tropical appeal of the palmetto provided an opportunity to do that, Butler said.
And roughly since then, the trees have served as a hook for visitors seeking a piece of the tropics.
Nowadays, palmettos are found relatively far from the water, in new housing developments springing out of former forests. While they're native as far as 12 miles from the coast, Olivier said they run into trouble in thicker, clay-heavy soils.
But those interested in planting one of their own need money, in addition to the palms' favorite sandy, loam soil: purchase and installation runs at least $400, Olivier said. And they're unlikely to seed naturally in the thickets seen in Florida.
"The climate, the conditions and the development where we are in South Carolina doesn't allow for any stands (of palmettos) any more," Olivier said.