Although the fragrance of orange blossoms, the Florida state flower, may lead you to think the orange tree is the state tree, the cabbage palm actually holds that title. Native to nearly every county in Florida, the cabbage palm is seen growing on beaches, woodlands and in scrub hammocks. Its rounded crown of fronds cast bright shade and provides a rare culinary delicacy known as "heart of palm."
The Florida cabbage palm, or "palmetto" or "sabal" as Floridians call it, has a scientific name of Sabal palmetto, a member of the palm family, Areceaceae. Further classification within the large palm family finds it grouped into subfamily Coryphoideae, tribe Coryphae and finally into its own subtribe of Sabalinae.
The cabbage palm grows throughout peninsular Florida and the Florida Keys while in the Florida Panhandle is naturally found withing 50 miles of the coast. Outside of the state, cabbage palm's native range extends across Georgia into South Carolina and also into the islands of the Bahamas and Cuba.
Erect, lacking branches and with one trunk, cabbage palm grows to a mature height of 30 to 80 feet. Its gray-green to lightly bluish olive fronds are rounded with folded and segments, resembling an accordion-folded fan. The frond petiole stems lack spines. It flowers in summer, creating a drooping branched cluster of tiny white flowers that produce small round black fruits. Dead fronds often cling to the trunk and when they break away leave a tan, inverted V-shaped base called a "boot". Some trees shed boots to reveal a smooth trunk while others retain their boots, looking like a hash-weaved pole.
This palm is tolerant of soils, heat, cold, wind, saltspray and drought common to all counties and climates across Florida.
The bud of the cabbage palm, in the crownshaft at the tip of the trunk where new fronds are formed, is edible, tasting like a cabbage when boiled. Harvesting of the bud kills the plant. The fronds are used to make brushes, baskets, roof thatch and canes. Honeybees use the pollen and nectar to strengthen their colonies. The cabbage palm is also a popular ornamental plant for landscapes, transplanting easily and readily grown from seed or harvested from the wild.
The Florida state legislature designated the cabbage palm the state tree in 1953. In 1970 the body also mandated that the cabbage palm replace the coconut palm on the State Seal.