Saw Palmetto Needs Its Saw Sharpened

30 Sep

Serenoa repens

(Sereno Watson was an American botanist.   Repens means lying down.)



Today’s sweaty trek was a lap of the Kiplinger Natural Area in Stuart with Beautyberries in purple splendor and species of Chaffheads putting on the purple as well.    The sun flecks through the pines lit up the Saw Palmetto fronds like stage lights, so what the heck, today it’ll be the dominant species around here, Saw Palmetto.


Sabal etonia, Scrub Palmetto, is similar but toothless.  By John Bradford.

Being everywhere and familiar to all, Saw Palmetto is festooned with Google-ish info and some mis-info.    We’ll knock off the uber-documented facts expediently,  knowing you can explore further on the Internet, and then ponder a couple less-obvious palmetto puzzlers.


Palmetto leaf wax, electron microscope image, by Dr. Bob Wise, Univ. WI

Well Known Stuff:

  1. Saw Palmettos come in silver and in green. The silver comes from wax granules making the leaf reflective and sun-tolerant.   Green individuals have less sunscreen.  The species grows in habitats ranging from full sun to shaded, so it makes sense to have populations mixed for this character.   Some sunny types,  some shady characters. Diversify, or at least that’s how I see it.  The wavy covering can become discolored with black  Meliola fungi, or from sooty mold.
  2. The so-called berries (drupes) are an industry in Florida amounting to a harvest of over 7 million kg/year.  There’s a long-standing history of application for prostate health.    Formal scientific studies seem to fail to confirm benefits, although the market abounds.



Fruits and ant, by John Bradford

Saw Palmetto “prunes” must have been good for Jonathan Dickinson, shipwrecked at Jupiter in 1696 and surviving with a small group of castaways partly on dried Saw Palmetto fruits while traveling under life-threatening conditions (five died) up the coast to St. Augustine.   It must have been good for JD’s prostate, because he went on to become Mayor of Philadelphia.

  1. Saw Palmettos cook happily in fire, and recover in a jiffy.
  2. You can make cool darts and dart launchers from the leaf stalks, but that is beyond the scope of today.

Scorched, and on the mend, by John Bradford

Weirder Stuff:

  1. Saw Palmetto clones can live a long time by rhizomatous spreading and branching, even if individual above-ground shoots perish or burn. Take a guess.   Botanist Mizuki Takahashi and collaborators recently compiled evidence suggesting maybe 10,000 years.  That’s almost back to the Pleistocene Epoch.    I could eat Saw Palmetto fruits from the same clone as Jonathan Dickinson, but I don’t want to.   He and I agree they are revolting. I’d rather eat a pickled prostate.
  1. The roots have air channels, hollow pipes conducting air who knows how deep into the underground. Down-bound air channels are common in marsh plant in suffocating waterlogged soil.  Perhaps my ignorance is showing, but Saw-Palmetto is the only example of rooty air ducts I know in a scrub-dweller.   The species, however, is not restricted to scrub.   Maybe the air ducts allow the roots to go extra-deep in the seasonally soggy-to-waterlogged pine woods soils where Saw Palmetto rules.    The roots need study by somebody with a shovel and a strong back


    Flowers by JB

  1. The leaf stalks (petioles) have saw teeth. Duh, everyone knows that.  That’s why it’s called Saw Palmetto.   But why the teeth?   The obvious answer is to protect the palms from animals who might eat it, or might climb into it to eat unripe fruit or flowers,  or might trample it.    Perhaps, although to my outlook it is hard to imagine any animals being a big threat now or earlier in the plant’s evolution, even those giant Pleistocene herbivores mashing around.   But you never know.   In any case to go a bit beyond, any other potential benefits from the dentition?   Maybe:

Although I’ve never heard it said about Saw Palmetto (perhaps missed it), I have seen speculation that the Saw-Grass saw blades blow in the wind to slice and dice competing plants.   Makes sense for Saw Palmetto.  The leaves last 3-3.5 years, too long to tolerate pesky vines encroaching.     Look out across a stand of Saw Palmetto.  Even when the non-Palmetto plants are all entangled, the Palmetto tends to be relatively free.

Saw Palmeto is most closely related to the Paurotis Palm, which has big petiole teeth.   Those on Saw Palmetto may be more or less vestigial from big-tooth predecessors.


Prickles by JB

The teeth come in varied shapes, the biggest and best hooking back.   The leaf blade is a big sail attached to a long flexible petiole with those recurved teeth.  With its blade twerking in the wind, the sawtooth petiole would almost have to snag and yank any vines it contacts.


Why are these prickles so tatty?

Evidence that that might (repeat, might) be true comes from a magnified peep at the teeth, especially near the tops of the petioles, where the teeth tips sometimes appear abraded and frazzled as though worn out.  A dull saw, perhaps?


The rare Kiplinger prostativore, snapped by JB




13 responses to “Saw Palmetto Needs Its Saw Sharpened

  1. Laure Hristov

    September 30, 2016 at 10:57 pm

    This blog would make a good stand up routine! I cracked up and couldn’t stop laughing at the thought of eating picked prostrate!😂🙀

    • George Rogers

      October 1, 2016 at 11:21 am

      Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it Laure.

  2. Steve

    October 1, 2016 at 7:18 am

    Finally, a blog about the red headed step child of our Florida native palms. I love saw palmetto, and I know you can’t cover everything, but some other cool facts.
    1. Saw palmetto is a monotypic species, only one Sereneoa sp., and it is S. repens.
    2. Although found in a few other scattered counties of some southern states, Saw Palmetto is almost unique to Florida where it is most prolific.
    3. One of the few palm species in the world which creeps along the ground.
    4. Thanks to the “teeth” along the petioles, the saw palmetto leaf stem makes the ultimate hotdog or marshmallow stick as the teeth help hold onto the food items.
    5. although Jonathan Dickinson and his shipwrecked compatriots ate saw palmetto fruit, he described them as tasting like “rotten cheese soaked in tobacco juice”.
    6. Saw palmetto fruits are harvested completely from the wild, they are not farmed.

    I love the mention of its evolution being linked to megafauna, as you might expect, I am in that camp. (I also think many of the adaptations of our Sabal speciies, such as the “burrowing” of their apical meristems throughout initial growth with various levels of adaptation depending on the species is in response to megafauna herbivory, although it could also be explained by fire).

    I always attributed the waxy coating as more of a protection against salt wind, rather than sunscreen. Most all coastal saw palmettos are of this “silver” variety.

    As always George, great blog!

    • George Rogers

      October 1, 2016 at 11:40 am

      Hey Steve, thanks for Chapter 2. Most importantly, so happy to see agreement on the big beast part. Seems to me, and probably to you, that traditional taxonomy so often fails to take megafauna as well as ancient persons fully into account. I like your thought on the burrowing—it is so easy to shout FIRE! in the face of every plant adaptation.

      Thanks for the salt wind observation. We’ll have to dewax some and then put them in briney breezes, and others dewaxed in inland sun and see who suffers worse. How about an adaptation for “one” purpose finding secondary utility and enhancement for the other purpose? A win-win flippable in either direction? Sunwax Palmetto notices near the sea…hey, this stuff is the bees knees for salty breeze, think I’ll enhance my wax! (Or maybe originally Saltwax Palmetto on seaside dunes fares better migrating inland dunes as the seawax gives scrub-sun advantage?) (Forced committee service enhances your win-win instincts.)

      The toothy stick tip will serve me well at the next weenie roast.

      • Steve

        October 1, 2016 at 10:52 pm

        I don’t know if it has been published, but many folks who conduct restoration in coastal areas won’t use green palmettos for this reason, and it makes sense to me. I like your idea on a test study done on the leaves, I feel sorry for that student who has to scrap them though…. Regarding distribution, and which was the primary mover, I am not sure. I have heard a lot of stories regarding silver saw palmettos and their propagation. The silver form is generally thought of as not true to seed. I spoke to one nursery guy, and he stated that giving the plants iron encourages the silvery trait. That could be another study, but given the slow growth nature of saw palmettos, it might take a couple years.

        On another note, I noticed some landscaped Sabal palms at a site, and the leaves weren’t waxy at all. They were a greenish yellow color. Most Sabal palmettos that I see have wax on them. I wondered if it might be another species….

  3. Suellen Granberry-Hager

    October 1, 2016 at 7:18 am

    I recently went with my dad to a talk on BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia), the medical term for enlarged prostate, given by his urologist. He recommends starting with saw palmetto before trying the usual medicines. Maybe he figures it can’t hurt and the placebo effect may help. I will show my dad the linked article in your post. And when my girls were in Girl Scouts, we used saw palmetto petioles as skewers to cook hot dogs. Saw palmetto is one of my favorite Florida plants, beautiful and useful.

    • George Rogers

      October 1, 2016 at 11:46 am

      Hey Suellen, Well, as with all thing medical…so much gray zone. Maybe I overstated my severe “stick with science” outlook…I’m no doctor, and am an aging male where whatever’s best for BPH is shall we say, of interest. But there’s no question the Girl Scouts know how to cook a hot dog.

      • George Rogers

        October 1, 2016 at 11:50 am

        Went back into the post just now and softened the remark on palmetto for BPH

  4. theshrubqueen

    October 1, 2016 at 8:18 am

    George, interesting as always. I think I will not eat any of the above suggested berries. My husband took Saw Palmetto for quite a while on the recommendation of a urologist, to no avail.
    This is one of those natives, I am afraid to invite into my garden for fear of being overrun, though apparently we could have a big BBQ?!

  5. George Rogers

    October 1, 2016 at 11:49 am

    Well it does dominate, but it takes time. The medicinal garden at PBSC was installed ca. 2006, a decade ago, and the saw palmettoes planted then are up to “full size” now, very beautiful but certainly demanding ample space. The problem with not being a kid anymore is what happened to hot dogs and marshmallows around the camp fire? Miss it!

  6. John Lampkin

    October 1, 2016 at 8:35 pm

    Hi George, love the blog and don’t see any other link to write to you so apologies if this in inappropriate. I’m steward of a modest Nature Trails tract in Hillsborough County. May I have permission to post the bulk of this column in our information kiosk? Credit to you of course with a plug for the blog.

    • George Rogers

      October 2, 2016 at 6:41 am

      John, For sure–thanks, George

  7. Mike Yustin

    October 3, 2016 at 9:46 am

    Considering all of the problems with illegal collection of saw palmetto berries I hope that this is a fad that passes. We have people collecting berries from every single property that we manage. From what I heard berries were selling for $3/ pound at processing plants this year.


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