Because of its beauty and versatility the cabbage palm is at the top of my list of favorite palms. It is a large robust palm with a single unbranching trunk that grows to about 50 ft (15.2 m) but may occassionally reach heights of 70 ft (21.3 m). The crown is relatively small being 12-18 ft (3.7-5.5 m) in diameter. Like many palms the crown is typically wider when grown in shade and more compact when grown in full sun.
The large leaves have a dull finish and are a medium green, sometimes yellow-green, in color depending on the individual and situation. Each leaf is up to 12 ft (3.7 m) long overall including the spineless petioles (leaf stems) which measure about 5-6 ft (1.5-1.8 m) in length. They are up to 6 ft (1.8 m) in width with drooping leaf segments about 3 ft (0.9 m) long and 2-3 in (5.1-7.6 cm) wide. These segments are split to about half the width of the leaf and typically slough off tan fibers at the edges. Cabbage palm leaves are said to be costapalmate meaning that the leaflets are arranged on the stem in a pattern that is midway between palmate (leaflets arranged like the fingers on the palm of your hand) and pinnate (feather shaped).
Unlike the royal palm, the cabbage palm has no crownshaft. Leaves emerge directly from the trunk which is often covered with old leaf stem bases that are arranged in an interesting criss-cross pattern. Depending on the individual these may persist to the ground even in very old palms. Other trees in the same vicinity may shed their leaf attachments or "boots" as they are sometimes called very early in life revealing a rough fibrous brown trunk. Eventually the trunk will age to gray and the surface will become smooth.
Organic debris often collects in these leaf bases. It is not uncommon to see a cabbage palmetto transformed into a hanging garden of ferns and other species. The leaf attachment planters play host to many other interesting species like orchids, ball moss (Tillandsia recurvata), resurrection fern (Polypodium polypodioides) and others including the fascinatingly fatal strangler fig (Ficus aurea).
This southeastern U.S. native palm occurs near the coast, from the North Carolina barrier islands to South Carolina, to Georgia, down to the Florida Keys and then up the Gulf Coast to the northwestern Florida panhandle. Sabal palmetto is also native to Cuba and the Bahamas. It is often planted all along the Gulf Coast. Cabbage palm occurs along beaches, sandy bay and estuary shores. It inhabits the margins of tidal flats and marshlands where it often crowds into extensive groves. It's also encountered inland in hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods.
Sabal palmetto is very salt and drought tolerant and can be used in beachside plantings. It is able to adapt to most types of soil. Cabbage palms are easy to transplant if they have at least six feet of trunk. Commercially the palmetto is dug from the wild and all of the leaves are cut from the trunk (care is taken not to damage the tender bud). All of the roots are cut back as well (damaged sabal die anyway and new ones grow directly from the trunk). A new planting of sabals looks like a garden of telephone poles from a distance! If the telephone poles are kept watered they will soon put forth new roots and leaves within a few months. It's recommended that new trees be staked or otherwise supported until established - especially in windy beachfront situations.
Light: Full sunlight to some shade. Trunk development is suppressed in heavily shaded specimens.
Moisture: Very adaptable. Average moisture will do. Tolerates drought, standing water and brackish water.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 8-10. This is a hardy frost tolerant palm that can survive many degrees below freezing.
Propagation: Collect seeds from trees in late fall and early winter. Plant the seeds any time, they will generate over a period of time from 2 to 12 months. Mature specimens are commercially obtained from natural plantings. Transplanting specimens without trunks is seldom successful.
Young potted cabbage palms will take up to ten years before they begin to form a trunk. They grow slowly these first years as root system and the crown forms. Once the trunk does begin to develop the growth rate increases somewhat. The growth rate of cabbage palm can be significantly increased with regular watering and feeding.
Dead leaves may persist on the trunk, hanging from the crown to form a "skirt". In urban situations it is recommended that these be removed, as they create shelter for rats and other undesirable creatures.
Cabbage palm is the state tree of Florida and is displayed on the state flag of South Carolina whose nickname is the "Palmetto State". The durable trunks are sometimes used for wharf pilings, docks and poles. Brushes and brooms can be made from young leaves, and the large fan shaped leaves have been used by the Seminole Indians in Florida as thatch for traditional pavilions, called chickees.
The large leaf buds of immature cabbage palms are used in southern cooking to make swamp cabbage and hearts of palm salad. Removal of the bud is lethal to the palm. We recommend that you NOT purchase nor eat hearts of palm for two reasons: 1) they're not that tasty, having only a bland crunchiness to recommend them and 2) most commercially available canned product is obtained from wild stands of Sabal species in Mexico and Central America which is decimating those populations.
You can read about several other members of the Sabal genus in Floridata. The Texas palmetto (S. mexicana) is very similar to the cabbage palm but is somewhat shorter and stouter. The Puerto Rican hat palm (S. causiarum) looks like a supersized cabbage palmetto on steroids. The blue palm (S. minor) and scrub palm (S. etonia) are small palms that do not form an above ground trunk and can be used in landscapes much like shrubs. I love them all.
In his excellent book, Palms and Cycads Beyond the Tropics, Keith Boyer proposes that the genus name is derived from the latin for palmetto. Or possibly from a French anagram La bas. It's fair to say that no one knows for sure the origin of the name Sabal.
Jack Scheper 9/17/96; updated 7/5/98, 7/29/01, 2/24/04