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FAMILY | GENUS | SPECIES: ARECACEAE | Sabal | palmetto Scientific Name:Sabal palmetto NATIVE TO COLLIER COUNTY FL?: Y


A primer on Florida's prolific saw palmetto and cabbage palm BY LEE BELANGER Special to Florida Weekly

Saw palmetto frond

I bet you've heard the name saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), even if you can't identify the plant. For centuries, people used this dwarf palm for medicinal purposes, and some still do. You'll find saw palmetto supplements in most drug stores today.

You probably also know the name cabbage palm, or sabal palm (sabal palmeto).

This common palm is Florida's state tree. Both the saw palmetto and cabbage palm are native to North America and found throughout Florida.

Many animals depend on the cabbage palm for food and shelter. Raccoons, squirrels, other mammals and birds eat its fruit and seeds.

People still eat the leaf buds which are sold as "swamp cabbage" or heart of palm. Unfortunately, however, removing the bud kills the palm. Most of today's store-bought heart of palm comes from Mexico and Central America, where stands of wild cabbage palms are cut and their populations are severely depleted. Commercially growing the trees takes too long to be profitable.

Cabbage palm frond

Cabbage palm fronds and boots (remnants from broken fronds) make ideal hiding places for lizards and bats. These broken fronds also provide a perfect spot (moist and secure) for ferns, orchids and mosses.

You can see why the cabbage palm is known as the "tree of life."

Telling one from the other

When saw palmettos and cabbage palms are mature, only their fan-shaped fronds appear similar. The mature cabbage palm grows up to 80 feet, towering over the tallest 8-foot saw palmetto.

When the trees are small, differentiating these palms is more difficult. Begin by looking at the leaf stems. The saw palmetto has sharp, saw-tooth spines along its stem; the cabbage palm has a smooth stem.

Next, note if the leaf stem ends abruptly at the edge of the fan-shaped leaf blade (saw palmetto), or if the stem continues into the leaf, forming an upside down V (cabbage palm).

Leaf size provides another clue. Saw palmetto leaves are only 3 feet across, while cabbage palm fronds can exceed 6 feet. Also, saw palmettos do not have the crisscrossed left stem pattern on their trunks, as young cabbage palms do.

Now look how the plant is growing. If the fronds grow from thick, rough stems running along or under the ground, it's a saw palmetto. You can see colonies of hundreds or more growing as a ground cover in pine forests.

Black bear, white-tailed deer and feral hogs all eat the berries of both trees. Native Americans did too. They fed saw palmetto berries to Jonathan Dickinson and his wife after the Dickinsons' ship sank off Florida's east coast in 1696. Mr. Dickinson described the berries as tasting like "rotten cheese steeped in tobacco juice," but their nutrition likely saved his life.

What the doctor ordered

Native Americans used saw palmetto berries to treat impotence, inflammation of the prostate and bronchial congestion. In the 1800s, settlers made extracts to treat cystitis, gonorrhea and enlarged prostate. After the discovery of antibiotics and improved surgical procedures, interest in saw palmetto for medical purposes decreased in the United States.

Currently there is renewed interest in saw palmetto berries. Workers harvest berries commercially from wild crops in Central Florida. The dried berries are ground into powder, and the active ingredient is isolated. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the extracts, they are sold as dietary supplements and touted as an aid to prostate health. In Germany, up to 95 percent of patients with benign prostate hyperplasia are first treated with an herbal extract from saw palmetto berries.

Both the saw palmetto and the cabbage palm are easily spotted along the trails at Collier-Seminole State Park. Come and see if you can identify each of them. As you do so, imagine what Florida would look like without these native palms.

Lee B Elanger is a volunteer trail and canoe guide at Collier-Seminole State Park.


Mary teneyck on Apr. 20 2009 edit · delete
  • Apr 20 well, I'm using the seeds for dying clothing, yarns as well as using them to dry out and grinding them up, then adding some other solutions to make paint the old fashion way~

CABBAGE PALM FAMILY | GENUS | SPECIES: ARECACEAE | Sabal | palmetto Scientific Name:[u]Sabal palmetto[/u] NATIVE TO COLLIER COUNTY FL?: Y