By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
The visage of the palm fronds congers images of balmy tropics and sunny beaches, which is quite attractive given the recent subfreezing temperatures. The thatched roofs of seaside cabanas gently rustle in the breezes with a sound unique to the leaves of this plant.
Depending on the species of the tree, the trunks can be smooth or jagged. All have a coarse fibrous texture with the odd strings hanging loose from the trunk or fronds while it provides shade as it sways in the occasional gust.
One species producing the long green finger-like foliage barely leave the ground and offers shade for no creature over a dozen inches or so tall. The saw palmetto, Serenoa repens, is a shrubby palm species native to Florida and common throughout the state in undeveloped and natural areas.
This species was named after Sereno Watson, a 19th century American botanist of some fame. The globetrotting scientist worked mostly in the western hemisphere tropics before becoming a curator of the botanical collection at Harvard University.
His namesake species is typically two to eight feet tall. They emerge from subterranean or low growing stems and each plant is capable of producing thickets up to 18 feet in diameter.
The palmate leaves of saw palmetto extend between two and three feet in diameter and are located at the end of a sharply saw-toothed stem. The well defended stems are approximately two feet long and the basis for the common name.
While they will grow in the full sun, this plant flourishes in the filtered light of pine and hardwood forest. Their dense growth tends to push out competing plants, forming massive and impenetrable barriers with the ground obscured from sight.
Beneath the palmetto foliage in its heavy shade is an unseen habitat where many creatures exist. The stealth environment provides close quarter protection for a variety of mammals, reptiles and insects which remain hidden from predators.
This plant flowers locally in March to April on stalks which are approximately 20 inches long. The blooms are attractive to European honeybees and many native pollinators, being a good source of nectar and pollen.
The saw palmetto’s flowers produce generous amounts of round fruit or berries called “drupes” which are half an inches in diameter and ripen from September to October. Birds and mammals consume this fruit, it being an important seasonal supply to a variety of species.
Undigested seed which are dropped in hospitable locations germinate plants in the spring. In a few years new thickets of saw palmettos can become established.
An assortment of health benefits for humans has been attributed to saw palmetto drupes over the centuries. Most date back before the days of Spanish exploration and conquest.
In recent years medical science has been able to verify some of the presumptive claims, and organized harvesting has ensued. Harvester must endure the late summer and early autumn high temperature and humidity, and the chance encounter with one of the unpleasant resident entwined beneath these palmettos.
Even with the challenges of using this native plant, its presence is a reminder of life without the complication of ice and snow.
To learn more about saw palmettos in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/