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Palmetto

Palm with FlowersThe Palmetto (Sabal palmetto), also called the sabal palm and cabbage palm, is the state tree of South Carolina, although unlike other trees it contains no wood and is more closely related to grasses. Palmettos grow in lots of different environments on the island, inhabiting everything from the back dunes of the beach to freshwater wetlands and the understory in forests. They are very slow growers, and young plants may take ten years or more to form an above-ground trunk. At maturity, they may grow as tall as 80 feet, although a more common height is about 50 feet. They flower during the summer, producing cream colored, fragrant flowers on long arching branches. The flowers attract a host of pollinators, including bees and beetles. After pollination, the palmetto flower produces a dark blue or black fleshy fruit. This fruit is highly nutritious, and eaten by many of our native wildlife species, to include herons, gulls, woodpeckers, common crows, fish crows, robins, blue jays, raccoons, and squirrels. Since the fruits ripen in the fall, they are an important food for a time of year when good sources of food are getting scarce. To help our wildlife, don’t remove the flowers or the berries they produce.

Palmettos usually hold on to the bases of old leaves ("boots"), even after the leaves are pruned or fall off, so you often see palm trunks covered in "boots". Photo of Palmettos with flower stalks; note "boots" on trunk near flowersOver time, these "boots" fall off or are removed, so the palmetto then has a smooth trunk. Because palmettos reabsorb the nutrients from browning leaves and distribute them to younger leaves, pruning any leaves other than those that are completely brown can result in nutrient deficiencies that can stunt or otherwise deform the tree. Also, "hurricane pruning", which is the removal of all the leaves except for those growing straight up from the top of the tree, produces a narrowed trunk just below the leaves. This practice weakens the tree and may cause premature death. As a general rule, overpruning problems can be avoided by only pruning completely dead leaves; if live leaves must be removed, do not remove any that are held above the horizontal.

Additional Resources:

Arbor Day Foundation: www.arborday.org/trees/treeguide/