Tree of Life
The story behind Florida’s state tree
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.