Tree of Life

The story be­hind Florida’s state tree

RSWLiving - - CONTENT - BY CAPT. BRIAN HOL AWAY Capt. Brian Ho­l­away is a Florida mas­ter nat­u­ral­ist and has been a South­west Florida shelling and eco-tour guide since 1995. His boat char­ters visit the is­lands of Pine Is­land Sound, in­clud­ing Cayo Costa State Park, Cab­bage Key, Pi

When talk­ing about Florida’s veg­e­ta­tion, I am of­ten asked which tree I like best. This is like ask­ing a par­ent to name a fa­vorite child. Right near the top of my list, how­ever, is the cab­bage palm, known sci­en­tif­i­cally as Sa­bal pal­metto. This palm was named the Florida state tree in 1953. (It also has that dis­tinc­tion in South Carolina.) It has been part of the cul­ture of South­west Florida for thou­sands of years. Though of­ten over­looked among palms—per­haps be­cause it is not as stately as some of Florida’s other palm trees—the sa­bal palm is wide­spread in South­west Florida, grow­ing in many dif­fer­ent in­te­rior and coastal ar­eas, from the beach to the re­gion’s ubiq­ui­tous sub­di­vi­sions.

In the wild the sa­bal palm can grow up to 90 feet and live be­tween 200 and 300 years. Its canopy can be 15 to 20 feet in di­am­e­ter, and its fan-shaped leaf, or frond, can be up to 5 feet across. The amaz­ing un­der­ground roots of this palm can reach up to 8 feet away from the base of the palm. This na­tive tree of Florida is not only salt tol­er­ant but also re­sis­tant to fire and frost. (You never know when it will freeze here in South­west Florida.)

The sa­bal palm has been used in a va­ri­ety of ways for cen­turies. The Calusa, among the ear­li­est na­tive in­hab­i­tants of South­west Florida, made cordage out of the hair­like fibers of the palm leaves. Some of these fibers were turned into rope/ cordage items that have been found in ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs dat­ing back to A.D. 800.

The Semi­noles called the sa­bal palm the tree of life, and with great rea­son: It pro­vided food, shel­ter and daily tools. The palm was to the Semi­noles what the buf­falo was to the Plains In­di­ans. It pro­vided ev­ery­thing for them. The palm fronds were used as thatch for build­ing their chic­kee huts. For roof­ing ma­te­rial, the palm leaves were folded over in the same di­rec­tion, known to some as the “Semi­nole fold.” The palm leaves were also used to make bas­kets, cloth­ing, brooms, brushes and hats—and still are to this day.

The Semi­noles called the sa­bal palm the tree of life, and with great rea­son: It pro­vided food, shel­ter and daily tools.

The berries from the tree can be eaten but are not very tasty. The more ap­pe­tiz­ing part of the tree is the heart of palm that can be found in young trees at the end of the ter­mi­nal bud. Some peo­ple make “swamp cab­bage” out of this part of the tree, though re­mov­ing the heart kills the tree. The sa­bal palm’s white flower can pro­duce a dark am­ber honey.

The leaf stem of the palm frond that is still at­tached to the tree af­ter the frond has been bro­ken off is called the boot. The boots re­main­ing on the tree pro­vide habi­tat for many birds, frogs, in­sects, rac­coons, pos­sums and the oc­ca­sional snake. The sa­bal palm is also a host for sev­eral dif­fer­ent plants such as Vir­ginia creeper, stran­gler fig and many ferns.

By pro­vid­ing shel­ter, food, tools, cloth­ing and cordage to peo­ple over the cen­turies, the Florida state tree has many sto­ries to tell. It’s no won­der at all why the Semi­noles called this palm the tree of life.

A replica of a Calusa ar­ti­fact found in 1897. It is made out of a light­ning whelk shell, and its cordage is made of cab­bage palm fibers. Florida’s state tree, the sa­bal palm

The ro­pe­like fibers of a thatched roof are made from the fronds of the sa­bal palm.

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