Palmetto Tree – What makes South Carolina the “Palmetto State”

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I am a native of the great state of South Carolina and cannot do a nature blog without posting about the Palmetto Tree (Sabal palmetto).  It is also referred to as the cabbage palmetto, this is due to the fact that it grown in mass to harvest the heart of new fronds for food (known as “heart of palm” commonly eaten in salads).  This tree is in the Arecaceae (palm) family, which is an ancient group of monocots that date back 80 million years to the Cretaceous period.  The palm family consist of some of the largest growing monocots.  This makes palm trees different than most other trees.  Palms have vascular bundles instead of xylem and phloem, which means they have not secondary (or outward) growth of their trunks (the Palmetto Trees trunk is only around 2 feet in diameter for its entire life).  This fact makes these plants more botanically related to grasses than to other trees.

The Palmetto Tree can grow up to 65 feet tall, and some very rare specimens have grown up to 92 feet.  These grow naturally along the coastal plains from Cape Fear, North Carolina along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts to Texas, but is planted other places as an ornamental.  It is drought and flood tolerant (as long as the water isn’t too salty).  It is also relatively cold tolerant, reportedly able to grow in temperatures as low as -13 C (7 F), which is why its one of the only palm trees that naturally grows as far north as South Carolina or North Carolina.  Its vascular anatomy makes the trunks of these trees very spongy, and (for lack of a better word) “bendy.”  This allows it to be very tolerant to areas where high winds are possible (like where hurricanes are prevalent).

The Palmetto Tree is the state tree for both South Carolina and Florida, but of the two it is regarded as the symbol of South Carolina.  South Carolina is dubbed the “Palmetto State,” not because it has more palmetto trees (that is probably Florida), but because of what this tree means to the state.  On June 28, 1776 there was an invasion by the British on the harbor of Charleston, SC.  At the time there was an incomplete, unnamed fort on a small island called Sullivan’s Island that was charged with protecting the Charleston Harbor (which was one of the reasons the British decided upon Charleston as their location for the attack).  This fort was commanded by Col. William Moultrie (and was later named Fort Moultrie).  The interesting thing about this fort was that it was made completely of Palmetto logs (a vast resource on and around the Island).  As I mentioned earlier, this plants vascular structure makes its wood very spongy.  This was an advantage for Col. Moultrie because the cannon balls blasted at the fort would either be absorbed or they would bounce back onto the beach, thus causing very little damage to the fort.  This allowed them to turn away the British Navy within a day, they would not return until 1780.  This was a huge victory for the Patriots around Charleston and kept the British from gaining a foothold in the southern states for approximately 4 years.

These trees are awesome native trees to the state of South Carolina and are planted everywhere around the state for decoration.  It’s even on our state flag (for more history about the flag of South Carolina check out my other blog post South Carolina State Flag – Rich in Natural History).  It is a worthy candidate to represent the state I call home.

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