Sabal palmetto (Walter) Lodd. ex Schult. & Schult. f.
Family: Arecaceae
Common names: Cabbage Palm,  more...
Synonyms: Corypha palmetto Walter,  more...
Sabal palmetto image
Sabal palmetto  

Other Taxonomic Groupings: Subkingdom : Tracheobionta

Division : Magnoliophyta

Subclass : Arecidae

Species Description: Sabal palmetto, the cabbage palm, is a common inhabitant of scrub communities beyond sand dunes, and the state tree of Florida. It is recognized by its tan-gray, unbranched trunk, and large crown with fanlike leaves. S. palmetto grows to a height of 10 - 25 m (32-82 feet), with a stem diameter of approximately 30 - 60 cm (12-24 inches).

Stem shape is uniform from the ground to the crown. Leaf bases, also known as boots, tend to slough off the tree as they dry, giving the trunk a smooth appearance (Duncan and Duncan 1988; Walker 1990). Leaves are palmate with no spines, and may measure 3 m (9.8 feet) in length, each with a prominent midrib. Flowers are cream colored and droop in clusters from the crown. Fruits are black and fleshy with a single seed (Olson et al. 1974). They may measure 8 mm (1/3 inch) in width. Root systems are short and bulbous, penetrating the soil to depths of 4.6 - 6.1 m (15-20 feet).

Regional Occurrence: Sabal palmetto occurs from southernmost portions of North Carolina through Florida and the Florida Keys to Cuba and the Bahamas. It is widely cultivated in the Hawaiian Islands (St. John 1973).

IRL Distribution: Cabbage palms occur throughout the Indian River Lagoon, most commonly in communities characteristic of barrier islands and beach dunes: live oak-sea oats communities, sand pine scrub, and palmetto prairies (Alexander 1955).

Age, Size, Lifespan: S. palmetto grows to a height of 10 - 25 m (32-82 feet), with a stem diameter of approximately 30‰ 60 cm (12-24 inches). Leaves may measure up to 3 m (9.8 feet) in length. Fruits are small, measuring approximately 8 mm (1/3 inch) in width. Root systems are deeply penetrating, and may reach depths of 4.6 - 6.1 m (15-20 feet) (Duncan and Duncan 1988).

Abundance: S. palmetto is abundant throughout the Florida and the Indian River Lagoon system.

Locomotion: Sessile

Reproduction: S. palmetto flowers from April through August, depending upon latitude. S. palmetto is insect pollinated. Fruit develops throughout the fall, and ripens in winter (St. John 1973; Olson and Barnes 1974; Wade and Langdon 1990). Birds and small mammals that eat the fruit of this tree aid in seed dispersal.

Embryology: Seeds are buoyant and salt resistant, requiring no pretreatment in order to break dormancy. Germination is hastened by planting seeds in moist sand at 3 °C (38°F) for 30 days. Optimum planting depth is 1.5 - 3 cm (0.5 - 1 inch) in light soil. Seed survival is reported to be low due to consumption by animals. Wade and Langdon (1990) reported that as little as 9% of 620,000 seeds produced per acre survived frugivory.

First year growth consists of the primary root, one fully expanded leaf, and a rhizomatous stem (Wade and Langdon 1990).

Salinity: Sabal palmetto is highly tolerant of salt spray, and inundation by brackish water. Seeds of this species are also salt resistant (Wade and Langdon 1990).

Physical Tolerances: St. John (1973) listed Sabal palmetto as one of the most insect resistant trees in southern Florida. Cabbage palms are also highly resistant to infection by pathogens (Wade and Langdon 1990).

Trophic Mode: Autotrophic

Competitors: Probable competitors include exotic species such as Australian pine (Casuarina spp.), melaleuca (Melaleuca quinquenervia), coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) and Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia).

Habitats: Optimum growth occurs in humid subtropical to warm temperate climates where average rainfall is 100 - 163 cm (39-64 inches), and average maximum/minimum temperatures range from 4 - 36° C (25-97 °F). Northern growth is limited by low winter temperatures. Preferred soil type for S. palmetto is calcium rich, and neutral to alkaline in nature. Cabbage palms prefer poorly drained soils, and often grow at the edge of freshwater and brackish wetlands. This species tolerates flooding (Alexander 1955).

Associated Species: Due to the diversity of its habitats, S. palmetto also has a variety of associates. Overstory plants include slash pine (Pinus elliotii), pond pine (P. serotina), loblolly pine (P. taeda), longleaf pine (P. palustris), and various oaks (Quercus spp.). Understory plants include gallberry (Ilex glabra), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), greenbriar (Smilax spp.), bracken ferns (Pteridium spp.), bluestems (Andropogon spp.), sawgrass (Cladium jamaicensis), beak rush (Rhynchospora spp.), and others.

Black bear, raccoons, bats, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, gulls, cardinals, grackles, blue jays, and scrub jays all rely on the fruit of S. palmetto for food (St. John 1973; Olson and Barnes 1974; Wade and Langdon 1990).

Benefit in IRL: S. palmetto is not only a popular ornamental plant throughout its range, it also provides food for many birds and mammals of the Indian River Lagoon, including the threatened scrub jay.

Economic Importance: S. palmetto is widely cultivated in Hawaii. Its commercial uses include wharf pilings, poles, table tops, and broom handles (Walker 1990; Wade and Langdon 1990)

Alexander, T.R. 1955. Observations on the ecology of the low hammocks of southern Florida. Journal of the Florida Academy of Sciences. 18(1): 21-27.

Austin, D.F., F.R. Posin, J.N. Burch. 1987. Scrub species patterns on the Atlantic coastal ridge, Florida. Journal of Coastal Research. 3(4):491-198.

Duncan, W.H. and M.B. Duncan. 1988. Trees of the southeastern United States. University of Georgia Press. Athens, GA. 322 pp.

Monk, C.D. 1966. An ecological study of hardwood swamps in north-central Florida. Ecology. 40(1):1-9.

Oosting, H.J. 1954. Ecological processes and vegetation of the maritime strand in the southeastern United States. Botanical Review. 20:226-262.

Olson, D.F., R.L. Barnes, Jr. 1974. Sabal palmetto. In: Schopmeyer, C.S., ed. Seeds of woody plants in the United States. Agriculture Handbook No. 450. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, D.C. pp. 744-745.

St. John, H. 1973. List and summary of the flowering plants in the Hawaiian Islands. Cathay Press Limited, Hong Kong. 519 pp.

Wade, D.D. and Langdon, O.G. 1990. Sabal palmetto (Walt.) Lodd. ex J.A. and J.H. Schult. Cabbage palmetto. In: Burns, R.M., B.H. Honkala, technical coordinators. Silvics of North America. Vol. 2. Hardwoods. Agric. Handb. 654. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,Washington, D.C. pp. 762-767.

Walker, L.C. 1990. Forests: A naturalists guide to trees and forest ecology. Wiley nature editions. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. New York, NY. 288 pp.

Wunderlin, R.P. 1982. Guide to the vascular plants of central Florida. University of South Florida, University Presses of Florida, Tampa, FL. 472 pp.

Sabal palmetto image
Sabal palmetto  
Sabal palmetto image
Sabal palmetto