Cabbage Palms – Even Our Best Friends Have a Secret or Two

31 Aug

Cabbage Palm

Sabal palmetto


Saturday morning it is, and how relaxing it is to relax!  This week classes started at PBSC; so did John’s and my “MOOC” on Native Plants.  In the first week of school broad topics set the academic context, one of those topics was persons of historical environmental interest in Florida.  Few had the super-human powers of John Muir, arguably most famous for founding the Sierra Club in California (and for inventing an alarm bed to toss you out of the sack in the morning).  One of the many reasons I like him is our shared  view of nature through just one eye.  On his Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf through still-smoldering Civil War rubble, John M. hiked across Florida via Gainesville with a layover ill at Cedar Key not long before fatherhood, the High Sierra, and enviro-glory.

The 1000-mile walk included a boat ride.  He landed at Fernandina as a lonesome, hungry, and frostbitten Wisconsonite to find an uplifting thrill upon spotting his first palm.  In his words:

It was while feeling sad to think that I was only walking on the edge of the vast wood, that I caught sight of the first palmetto in a grassy place, standing almost alone. A few magnolias were near it, and bald cypresses, but it was not shaded by them. They tell us that plants are perishable, soulless creatures, that only man is immortal, etc.; but this, I think, is something that we know very nearly nothing about. Anyhow, this palm was indescribably impressive and told me grander things than I ever got from human priest.

sabal palmetto cypress creek1

I’m more jaded.  The grand thing my backyard Cabbage Palm says is, “clean up my fallen debris.”  But looking back a few years, I recall excitement as a northern kid peering out the back seat window through a cloud of my Dad’s pipe smoke and spotting that first palm tree upon arriving on a Florida vacation.  (Don’t they plant some at the state line?)

The geographic distribution covers most of peninsular Florida, truncated abruptly along a line across North Florida, with razor-thin ribbons extending along the Gulf Coast in the Panhandle, and far up the east coast to North Carolina in the Caribbean too.

As Florida’s state tree, Cabbage Palms are known well as sources of fiber and thatch, as having the persistent leaf bases harboring epiphytes and creatures, as feeding berries to wildlife and ancient humans, and as having their terminal buds (“hearts”) tasty and apparently responsible for the name “Cabbage” Palm.

Now for something less generally familiar—a feature known in plant nurseries and studied biologically in the 90s by biologists K. McPherson and K. Williams (see esp. Am. Jour. Bot.  83: 1566-1570. 1996).

Cabbage Palm flowers by John Bradford.

Cabbage Palm flowers by John Bradford.

Young Cabbage Palms face a rough world… hurricanes, flooding, drought, frost, shade, hogs, rampaging hippos, and fire.  That’s all pretty threatening if you have just one growing bud.  Consequently they and additional palms evolved a secret adaptation.  After germination, the trunk does not rise and prosper like a normal plant.  Instead, it burrows downward, sometimes as deep as a meter, before executing a U-turn to eventually come forth above the ground.  The growth is J-shaped with trunkless leaves jutting above the ground surface. (The related Sabal minor most often hides its trunk permanently below ground or nearly so.)

We’re not talking about a momentary delay.  The belowground trunk establishment phase reportedly takes usually 30-60 years or more under wild conditions (maybe 7-20 years in favorable cultivation).  The trunk from a seed germinated when I was peering out that car window in 1960 may just be breaking ground now.  A stand of Cabbage Palms can be wiped out above-ground and recover just dandy from others still in the subterranean trunk phase.  Or seen differently, starting a Cabbage Palm stand from seed will require patience.  Plant the seeds while you are young for your gray-haired grandchildren.

Sabal palmetto


Posted by on August 31, 2014 in Cabbage Palm


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10 responses to “Cabbage Palms – Even Our Best Friends Have a Secret or Two

  1. Laure Hriatov

    August 31, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Wow, had no idea this is how the Cabbage palm grows! A true survivor, my kind of Plant! Admire that trait in people too :). Must be an Aires thing.

    • George Rogers

      August 31, 2014 at 5:37 pm

      Yea, at 62 I’m still taking the dive. When do I burst forth into the sun?

  2. Uncle Tree

    August 31, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    A grand lesson in stalwart patience. 🙂 Obviously, that is something I don’t have.

    Wishing you and John a fine Labor Day retreat tomorrow. Cheerz, Uncle Tree

  3. George Rogers

    August 31, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    UT, enjoyed yours this week especially much.

  4. Steve

    August 31, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    One word. Mastodon.

    Ok, I lied, a few more. That adaptation makes them a pain in the tuckus when growing them by seed in pots.

    • George Rogers

      September 1, 2014 at 9:05 am

      I knew the ghost of mastodons past would be back. How about bison? So far no corrective comments re. hippos. Interestingly, when they wrote the AJB article above, M and M talked to nursery growers about cultivated conditions. They found out, yep, don’t hold your breath. The 7 year figure came from a nursery in LW. No wonder boosting cabbage palms from the wild is common. In a truck-accessible uncontrolled urban woods of ambiguous ownership near my house there are craters where the palms used to be. (And dumped trash, and old cars parts, and once a gunshot.)

  5. Martin

    September 1, 2014 at 7:31 am

    Wait, what now? So you’re saying, George, that it takes some 7-20 years for cabbage palm seeds to “germinate”, as we laymen would see it? And that the trunk of the “tree”, as it were, grows downward first? Why don’t I see evidence of this when they are dug up for transplanting, and you see that big root ball with all the soda straw roots sticking out from it? George, I don’t understand…

  6. George Rogers

    September 1, 2014 at 9:16 am

    They germinate pretty fast. We tried some in our plant nursery, with some germinated in a matter of weeks. And the leaves appear above ground. It is the underground trunk re-shaping and trunk emergence that takes so long. By the time the actual trunk breaks ground it is pretty big. They sit there for years with a tuft of leaves apparent but no trunk. The actual trunk break-through is what takes so long. I have a young one (leaves visible maybe 2-3 years) in my foundation hedge I’ve been tempted to dig and examine, but that may take too much effort for 92-degree days. The J-evidence eventually fades with time. If you catch it young enough the “saxophone” shape (as W&W put it) remains visible, but by the time you are at transplant age, I suppose the two sides of the J have merged, or the smaller portion has faded out. Interesting that when you burn a woods you don’t send the Cabbage Palms back to regrowth from seed, but rather what could be a population merely hiding in their bomb shelters. There was a good bit in the news a few years ago along the line of Global Warming causing sea-level rise in hte “Big Bend” portion of the FL NW coast. Reportedly, and you probably saw it, the rising level increased soil salinity, this killing Cabbage Palms. I wonder how that relates to the underground J’s.

    Found a photo, not great, but useful with link:

  7. Martin

    September 9, 2014 at 6:42 am

    Well, I’ll be dipped. Ya learn sumthin’ new every day – thanks, George!

  8. George Rogers

    September 9, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Yea, who woulda thunk it? you plant a seed, it grows-right?


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