A Tribute to Saw Palmettos

Serenoa repens, the hardy Saw palmetto, found throughout our fair state and in the logo for the Florida Native Plant Society, is a tough and versatile plant. It is in rampant bloom right now, reminding the Jolly Bloggers that they have been meaning to do an "appreciation" post on it for some time now. So let's do it!

Wikipedia is almost never a resource for us here, but I must admit I was interested in the name of this plant, and found no information from our usually mentioned resources. I discovered over there that 'Serenoa' was used as a way of honoring the American botanist, Sereno Watson, who otherwise had nothing whatsoever to do with the plant as far as I could discover. 'Repens' is latin for "unexpected, or surprised." And so I was. Surprised. I had expected the name to tell something about the plant!

Serenao repens, saw palmetto in a yard
The name 'Saw palmetto,' on the other hand, does tell something about the plant. The petiole, which is the leaf stem, is sharp with teeth which saw right  through your skin if you forget about them and try to push through a clump, or to pull vines off it with bare arms! 

Here is a sequence of the marvelous blooms we are seeing at this point in the year. The blooms are tightly closed at first.
The branch of blooms is  called an  inflorescense

close up of blooming saw palmetto
the tiny flowers begin to open

the sprays of blooms are lovely additions in springtime
Bartram's hairstreak
There is no app or icon or anything else to convey fragrance, so you just have to imagine the sweet scent of these blossoms filling the air all around them. Palmettos are nectar plants for Bartram's scrub-hairstreak (Strymon acis), atala (Euphyes arpa) and others. They are a larval host plant for monk skipper  (Asbolis capucinus), and palmetto skipper (Eumaeses arpa).

Palmettos also provide significant cover and food for a number of birds and other wildlife - turkeys, deer, bear among them. They are easy, easy to keep in a landscape, with a high tolerance for drought once established. In natural areas, palmettos are kept free of vines, such as muscadine, by periodic fires. If you have palmettos in a kept-garden, you will have to act like a fire every so often to keep
vines from covering the palmetto.  Some people like to maintain these plants by scalping them thusly:
naked saw palmettos
To me, these plants look naked and tortured. However, as a kind landscape friend of mine once pointed out, it may be that the owners like to see the structure. Even treated like this these palmettos have managed to put out blooms. A single specimen in your yard will grow almost straight up; these plants grew at angles as they competed and reached up for sunlight. The palmetto really prefers full sun, but will grow in partial sun, too. 

straight across: it's a saw palmetto
You probably already know how to tell a saw palmetto from a sabal, or cabbage, palm. The tip off is at the tip of the petiole.

persisting up into the leaf: it's a sabal palm
The palmetto is found in green and silver forms, but both are called by the same formal name. The silver ones are frequently found in more coastal areas, where it is speculated that they may be exuding a wax to help protect themselves from salt. However, the silver types do crop up in the inland areas as well. The saw palmetto is beautiful in natural settings. Here is a saw palmetto in a coastal scrub natural area; note the interesting contrast in leaf texture between the saw palmetto, wax myrtle, oaks, and myrsine.
saw palmetto composition by Nature

sue dingwell


Anonymous said…
Very informative article and I love the plant--it's so hardy!

V. Avery

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