How to cultivate a Lowcountry sense of place


No tree evokes Lowcountry ambiance like a sabal palmetto.

NO TREE EVOKES LOWCOUNTRY AMBIENCE like a sabal palmetto. We cherish this native palm because its logs kept our ancestors safe from flying cannonballs, and we appreciate the way it stands up to hurricanes while other trees snap like matchsticks.

Sabal palm’s botanical oddities make it remarkably strong and resilient. It shrugs off drought and puts up with standing water, even when it’s brackish. Sometimes called cabbage palmetto, this genus is not really a tree. While two-thirds of the world’s plant seeds produce two leaves, or dicots, at germination, sabal palm begins life as a monocot or single cotyledon. This trait makes it more closely related to rye grass than an oak tree. Plants that begin life with a single leaf never produce branches or stems, which explains why sabal palm grows up to look like a giant feather duster.

A sawed-off sabal doesn’t display rings because the trunk’s vascular bundles are not concentrically arranged like those in a “regular” tree. (This makes determining true age difficult, although we do know that sabals can live for over a century.) Water- and nutrient-transporting
cell groups are instead randomly scattered throughout the stem. This configuration gives sabal exceptional structural strength while also affording it the flexibility to bend in the wind without breaking. However, this doesn’t mean that palm trunks are indestructible. They’re incapable of healing if slashed. The most common weapon used is a machete. Inexperienced gardeners sometime mistakenly assume that it is necessary to cut off palm boots—those v-shaped frond stems that grow flush to the trunk. However, in due time most mature palms eventually “throw” these spent stems, giving their trunks a smoother appearance. (Climbing with spikes and using nails or screws to secure a hammock is also detrimental to sabal health.)

Sabal palmetto also has a peculiar growth protocol. It can’t reach skyward until the trunk’s circumference reaches its full size. This is why gardeners sometimes mistakenly think that a shrubby-looking, trunkless palm is a dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor), when it might be a juvenile sabal palm instead. (Dwarf trunks remain almost entirely underground, even at maturity.)

For gardeners, one of sabal’s most maddening characteristics is its propensity to produce an overabundance of seed. Scientists in Florida once estimated that wild-growing sabal palms produce more than a half-million seeds per acre per year. This number probably won’t surprise anyone who’s ever had to sweep palmetto berries off a Charleston sidewalk.

The only way to keep palms from dumping tens of thousands of progenies onto the ground is to remove the seed stalks before they mature. Bare green stems begin to poke through the frond canopy in May, and poofs of creamy white flowers dangling from panicles begin to bloom around mid-summer. I always wait until the flowers start to fade before making an appointment with my arborist to have them—as well as any dead fronds—removed. Waiting until the end of flowering appears to be a reliable signal that stalk production is over for the season. Plus, flying insects, including honeybees, go after the nectar with zeal.

Perhaps the most difficult thing not to do to a palm is over-prune it. While it’s horticulturally acceptable to remove dead fronds, healthy ones are frequently sacrificed for the sake of attractiveness. Before removing yellowing leaves, consider first having the surrounding soil tested. In many instances the discoloration is a sign of a nutrient imbalance, and sabal palm is genetically predisposed to micronutrient deficiencies, especially magnesium. If this is the case, cutting off yellowed fronds simply pushes the problem further up into the canopy. This can eventually cause premature death. Also keep in mind that even when yellowing is not an issue, if too many leaves are removed, photosynthesis becomes compromised, slowing food production.

Professional sabal palm growers and privately owned garden centers within the same locality often collaborate to provide homeowners with quality products. This is a plus for both you and your palm, because locally cultivated ones are more likely to survive in a climate to which they have already adapted. Establishing a relationship with local growers and retailers is the first step to finding a healthy sabal palmetto.

Sabal palmetto needs full sun (six to eight hours of sunlight per day), and a prudent gardener will provide it with adequate canopy space. A palm that ends up with its crown tangled in live oak or other tree branches is often less vibrant and eventually loses its attractiveness. *

PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.

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