The next time you see a palmetto growing in the wild, take a moment to consider it may be the very same plant an early American explorer brushed by. Palmetto palms are prominent throughout the Big Bend area, and have been part of the panhandle’s ecosystem for centuries; their presence is a reminder of our connection with previous inhabitants of this land. Commonly known in Wakulla County, and many other Florida locales, as the palmetto, it is the slow growing and long lived producer of intimidating thickets.
Serenoa repens, as it is known scientifically, is a native to the southeastern U.S. and the only member of the Serenoa genus.
While this plant can be found as far away as Arkansas, Florida is where this palm is most commonly encountered. This resilient plant is a common sight today in the coast plains adjacent to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
Live oaks, pines and other trees may dominate the horizon in Florida’s wild areas, but it is the palmetto which covers thousands of square miles of the sandy soil. The green frons provide the texture of a prickly green blanket which hides the unknown and generates speculation.
The area’s original inhabitants learned long ago about the many useful features this plant offered to human and animal residents. As explorers transitioned into colonist, they too developed an understanding and appreciation of this often overlooked foliage.
Rarely over seven feet tall, the sprawling plants grow in dense irregular clusters. Some specimens in undeveloped area are estimated to be over 500 years old.
The palmetto’s palm shaped leaves spring from a stalk or petiole which is lined with sturdy sharp spines resembling a saw. The spines are easily capable of tearing fabric or flesh of anyone careless when moving through palmetto undergrowth.
The palmetto flowers are pale yellow to white and grow on dense stalks with a distinct fragrance. They are attractive to a number of native insects which collect nectar and pollen.
Even European honeybees find the blooms attractive. The late spring blooms are the basis for palmetto honey.
The palmetto’s fruit is a gloss deep red to black berry. It is an important wildlife food stock, and the means by which palmetto seeds reach and colonize new sites.
Humans also have consumed the berries and have used the frons for a variety of applications requiring a fibrous materiel. Thatched roofing, woven hats and baskets, and fiber strands to reinforce pottery are all uses which have been devised over time.
The fatty acids and phytosterols have been tested for medicinal applications in recent decades. Clinical trials indicate it is a safe and effective treatment for some prostate conditions.