Take your pick! In Florida, the state tree is called a cabbage palm. That same tree decorating the state flag of South Carolina is called a palmetto. According to Jono Miller, either is correct as a common name, but to botanists, both are sable palms.
In his new book, “The Palmetto Book: Histories and Mysteries of the Cabbage Palm,” published by the University Press of Florida, Miller answers questions puzzling gardeners, botanists and landscapers for years.
“They’re both sabals….It’s a popular species with a wide variety of palms, including several Florida natives,” Miller said, as he explained his singular interest in all things palmetto.
Miller’s fascination began after his first glimpse of a palmetto, on his first visit to Florida as a child.
“The cabbage palm attracted me, and I loved Florida’s nature and habitat,” he said.
Miller attended New College in Sarasota, and stayed on to run the Environmental Studies program at the college, where he’s led many a field trip into the Florida wilds in search of palmetto groves to study the Southeast’s iconic tree.
With a droll wit, Miller takes on the raging debate over the palmetto’s classification, longevity and desirability of Florida’s ubiquitous palms. Are they a true tree? Or are they a grass, like bamboo? How long do they live? Are they worth keeping, or should we tear them out?
Palmettos are part of Florida’s pyrogenic ecosystem, surviving fires, just like the pines. They’re also a wonderful food source for wildlife, providing fruit (palm berries), shelter – the “bootjacks” (frond stubs left on the trunk) harbor all sorts of critters, and the hanging brown fronds may house bats. And palmetto honey’s always a treat.
Fascination of Early Naturalists
In his introduction, Miller explains his motives for such a book, quoting John Muir, who stressed that everything’s connected. Like many early naturalists who sang the praises of Florida’s unusual flora when experienced firsthand, Miller also fell under the palmetto’s spell.
“In 1981 I did a drawing of a cabbage palm for a friend,” he said. “I was curious about the complicated trunks. They were tricky to draw, and I wanted to know more.”
These Illustrations are sprinkled throughout the book, with photos showing palmettos in many settings, from swampy hammocks to the cheesecake 1959s bathing suit-clad beauty leaning against a palm. Even the landscape painter Winslow Homer featured cabbage palms in a painting of the St. John’s River.
Miller takes us on field trips from Key West to the Panhandle and up the Atlantic coast onto Virginia in search of cabbage palms. In his travels, he encounters many folks who help him answer questions and confirm his ideas.
Acknowledging he’s a bit obsessive about palms, Miller says he once drove 290 miles just to see a rare two-headed cabbage palm, one of many palm anomalies he documents in one chapter that includes variegated leaves and other oddballs of the palmetto world.
Is the Palmetto Useful?
Early settlers found the trees destroyed a saw’s teeth, and thus were too expensive for lumbermen. But the sturdy long-lasting logs make fine dock posts and bridge supports and log cabins; the Seminoles use both trunks and leaves for the traditional “chickees,” stilt platforms above the swampy forest floor of the Everglades, their traditional homes.
And of course, “swamp cabbage” was a popular food, now a delicacy known by the more gentile name, “hearts of palm.”
Despite this, there are those who think the lowly cabbage palm is a “trash tree” and yank it out of the landscape; some homeowner’s associations ban them, preferring more exotic palms. Landscapers often prune too severely, hurting the tree. But the “petticoat” does not harm the tree, so there is no real need to prune.
Currently, the main threat to these is “Lethal Bronzing,” a disease that came from Texas in the early 2000s, that causes palms to lose their green color and die.
But there’s so much information crammed into these essays it’s impossible to recount here, and Miller said there are nine chapters that didn’t make it! So read the book, and you, too, may become a palmetto promoter.
Learn more at Jono Miller’s blog, palmettobook.blog.