Palmettos in the Landscape
There's nothing like a palm or palmetto to add a bold, tropical touch to your landscape. We are lucky that the previous owners left several saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) thickets when they cleared out the lot.
Once or twice a year we trim away the yellow and brown fronds to tidy these native plants, but no other care is needed. These dramatic accent plants are exceptionally easy to care for.
Several times, I've tried to transplant small offshoots from these plants with no success. I'll keep trying, though, because there are some areas where I'd like to start new batches at the edges of our meadows to provide better cover and more privacy. Several lots near us that used to be wooded have now been cleared, so our palmettos and other native shrubs on our property offer a much-needed haven for birds.
The Sturdy Saw Palmetto
The hard, recurved teeth on the stems (petioles) of the fronds give the saw palmetto its common name. When trimming away the old fronds, we wear leather work gloves and are careful where we walk because those teeth can gouge your skin. Palmettos make an excellent impenetrable border.
Despite their low survival rate when transplanted from the wild, palmettos are difficult to get rid of if you don't want them. The roots run deep and are extensive, so digging up a palmetto stand is a lot like work. It burns readily, but burning it will not kill it. Palmettos are fire tolerant and will sprout new growth within a week or two of burning. If you are in a high fire risk neighborhood, you should remove all palmettos within thirty feet of any buildings and keep them separated into bunches elsewhere so they don't offer a continuous source of fuel. Our neighborhood is not a high-risk area, but our palmettos are away from the house.
My blue palmettos
A friend gave me three blue palmettos (Sabal minor) a couple of years ago. They have survived and are now growing slowly--oh so slowly. I've planted two of them near the front pond and the third is in a low spot near some sweetbay magnolias (Magnolia virginiana), but it will be a long time before they will make a "statement" in the landscape. Patience.
The blue palmetto is more closely related to the cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), our state tree, than the saw palmetto, which belongs to a different genus. The scientific species name of the cabbage palm, "palmetto" confuses the issue of palm vs. palmetto. Generally, a palmetto is a shrubby plant. The trunk of a mature palmetto isn't usually vertical for more than few feet. The fibrous trunk grows either underground or it lies on top of the soil. While palms are not true trees, they do eventually develop vertical trunks. For the first five to ten years, a palm will look much like a palmetto while it develops a trunk. Once the trunk is established, the palm will grow vertically, but the girth of its trunk does not usually increase.
Palms and palmettos are monocots and do not produce wood like true trees, which produce new layers of wood each year--their annual rings. Palm trunks are more like a grass with bundles of woody tissue throughout. This means that palms do not have bark and cannot heal wounds like true trees. It's unfortunate that many palms in Florida are located in the middle of lawns and are injured at each mowing by lawnmowers and string trimmers. The gouges in the trunk will not heal and become entry points for insects and fungi. These wounds also weaken the trunk, so while palms usually survive hurricanes, injured palms may break off at the soil line. To save your palms, replace about 18 inches of lawn around the trunks with mulch, but don't pile it against the trunks. This also makes it easier to mow.
When cabbage palms are transplanted from the wild, they will generate a whole new root system. Hundreds of unbranched roots grow directly from the bottom of the trunk and only after the new roots have been generated will there be any growth of the fronds. This is why almost all of the fronds are trimmed off when they are prepared for planting and they are often staked for a few months to keep them upright. At no other time should green fronds be trimmed from a palm. Almost all of the cabbage palms used for landscape plantings are transplants from the wild because they take so long to get started.
There are two major classifications of palms and palmettos based on leaf (frond) shape: the fan palms and the feather palms. Our palmettos and the cabbage palms are fan palms where the stem (petiole) is bare and the frond is palmate or arranged so that each section of the frond is arranged like spokes in a wheel. A feather palm has pinnate fronds with the sections arranged along a center stem like (guess what?) a feather.
Over the years, palms and palmettos have been
employed in many ways:
One of these days I'd like to plant a few cabbage palms on our lot, but until then I'll continue to enjoy our palmettos.
· For more information on saw palmettos: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/UW110
Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners here in northeast Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in planting zone 8/9. She's in the process of writing a book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," to be published by University Press of Florida.