Saving Florida's Symbol: Take Care of Our Sabal Palm

Properly pruned sabal palm.

It's not a well-known fact, but this most regal name for the Sabal palm (pronounced Sāʼbăl) (Sabal palmetto) originated with Native Americans, perhaps on seeing their first palm trees. With that being the case, it bodes for us to pay closer attention to the heritage of our state symbol.


These nobles began life in the Unite States in our southeastern region after having wandered north from the Caribbean area where they can thrive here today—with the proper care. They are also commonly called Cabbage, Palmetto or Hat palms, with 16 species spread across northeastern Mexico to Florida.

They find a comfortable habitat in open areas, where the dunes flow and flats tidal, savannas breeze, occasionally swamp shades and even—salt marshes!

How many of us know that the State of Florida has honored this tree by designating it as the official state tree—that happened in 1953—more than likely because it's all over the state. Then things finally came to a head, in 1970, when the Florida legislature declared the Sabal needed to replace the cocoa palm on the state seal.

Growing in some of the worst soil is no problem for the Sabal and it's known for its multi-tasking: food, medicine, and landscaping. Being a very big favorite with landscapers has promoted its availability through a host of commercial resources.

Floridians have a duty to the State Symbol. Let's keep it around as long as we can.
Just so everyone knows:

The Sabal Palm is in jeopardy!

Once the growing tip dies or is trimmed
away, the tree cannot grow back.

Bacteria are killing our favorite palm, carried by a vomiting bug. What a disgusting thought! Some of our horticulturists believe it was brought over from Texas. Others believe it arrived on another type of palm.

As of this time, there is no antidote for the horrible problem and the bad news is you can't tell it's there just by looking. If you have a regular landscape service, check with them to see if they can put a test on your Sabal to make sure it's healthy—especially if you have several. Perhaps you can have one tree destroyed before it has hit all the others.

Lastly, it's a good idea to inject your palms with antibiotics. Your nursery can give you instructions, depending on its age and dimensions.


The fronds are what feed the tree. Even the large brown frond bases need to remain. Apparently, there are specific methods for trimming these palms or we'll find another way to lose them.

Pruning that leaves an 11 to 1 profile (on the clock) will kill them! The standard is to leave a 9 to 3 outline. Keep the fronds, as many as possible. They supply the tree with nutrients. Did we say that before? If so, it's worth saying again: Leave as many fronds as possible.


One more thing, if you need to get up into the tree, please do use a ladder. A palm does not have the capacity for self-healing, as do other trees, so that if you wear spikes to climb these palms, you are doing permanent damage! Don't do that either!


One more time: use a ladder and get up into the canopy to remove them. Be sure to keep the lower part of the frond (where it widens) in place. This will become part of the tree's structure—they are important to the canopy's support when high winds occur.
Removing the dead frond stems (horticulturists call them "boots" as they form around the trunk, under the crown) will also kill them! Don't do that! They form the support for the crown. If your goal is to remove the flowers, refrain from removing the fronds. Use a pole-saw with a snap-head adjustment that allows you to bypass the fronds, reach in there and take out the flowers or fruit you want to remove.

This palm is somewhat over-pruned.

1. Prune correctly (or hire a professional)

2. Watch for disease

3. Don't climb with spikes

With all this in mind, you can help save Florida's state symbol and keep the beautiful Sabal palm as a specimen star in your landscape.

Guest post written by Pat Hogan, a landscaping enthusiast developing resourceful websites about trees in Orlando and trees in Miami.


Thoms said…
landscapers gold coast
Nice post.Thank you for sharing some good things!!
James said…
Some counties have ordinances against trimming Sabal Palms. The decaying frond tips help fertilize the palm and the full head provides a habitat for fruit bats and birds. I would not trim a Sabal Palm at all. The fronds fall away naturally and the full head (brown fronds and all) is a much better look.Trimming may not always be life threatening to the palm but it does always detract from its appearance.
Anonymous said…
Are the berries from this Sabal Palm edible?
Hi James. I think whether or not we trim our Sabals is just a matter of preference - as long as the trimming is done appropriately. As a Landscape Architect, I prefer palms with their "boots" in tact, which gives the base of the palm a certain amount of visual interest (which is nice because they obviously grow way taller than our sightlines). I should also note that bats will inhabit live leaves as well as dead ones, so removing fronds/leaves won't necessarily leave them homeless. Thanks foryour comments!
The squirrels seem to enjoy them, but the truth is there isn't much fruit underneath the skin. The seed contained within is very large, and most sources say that it's not really worth the trouble to try to make anything with it. Good question!
Dave Feagles said…
Since bats are such an unrecognized and important part of the local ecology, for mosquito control if nothing else. I think it's very important that you examine your conjecture that bats will simply move to live fronds. The issue is much more complex. I defer to the experts on this and hope they will chime in with important details.

Let me offer an analogy. When Scrub Jays are displaced by development, they move into similarly tall shrubs in neighborhoods to nest, but five years later there are none to be found there.
Actually, it's not a conjecture - I have bats in my Sabals' live fronds, even in the presence of dead ones.

Although I appreciate your attempt at positing an analogy, Scrub Jays and bats are hardly comparable. Not only are Scrub Jays endemic to peninsular Florida, their habitat preference is specific to areas where Scrub Oak coverage exceeds 60%, open space exceeds 10%, Pine coverage is less than 20%, and forests are more than 136 m away. They rely on Scrub Oak acorns for forage during the winter, which they stash in open sandy areas. In addition, fire must not be suppressed in these habitats, because it stunts the growth of the Scrub Oaks, (which is good, since the Scrub Jays prefer Scrub Oaks that do not exceed 10' in height), increases the diversity of understory plants, and keeps the canopy from closing up. In short, they are a narrow-niche species.

Florida's bats, on the other hand, are simply not that picky. They have proven adaptable to roosting in a fairly wide variety of places throughout the state, both natural and man-made. They aren't particularly concerned with understory vegetation, and don't depend on a location/height-specific type of oak for winter survival. Most bats appreciate and will take advantage of man-made items like utility poles (a hot spot for insects at night) and bat houses. Further, of the 13 bats found in Florida, none of the species considered "uncommon" or "rare" prefer Sabal Palm fronds for roosting.

Granted, I am not an "expert," per se, but I did study wildlife ecology as part of my training for a career in Landscape Architecture, I've been a member of the Audubon Society for the last 12 years, and am a Certified Master Naturalist in both coastal systems and freshwater wetlands. I am also VERY FOND of bats.

Hobo Botanist said…
It should be noted that Sabal palms are adapted to, and usually resprout after, fire. For smaller stature Sabals, fire generally consumes the leaves (and boots). Leaves on taller palms are likely less affected. It seems to me that one should gauge which circumstance is appropriate when leaf trimming. For natural systems, or if one is recreating a fire climax community in their landscape, I believe leaf trimming is acceptable. Here in south Florida, it is a common practice to reduce excess fuel on plants and reduce the number of hardwoods when prescribing fires in fire-suppressed systems. In my own yard, I will trim and remove green cabbage palm fronds on my shorter plants growing in my "restored pineland" section in an effort to reduce nutrients in this low nutrient system that had been fertilized lawn for 50 years.
Sabal palm trees are very useful. In South Florida it is a common practice to reduce excess fuel on plants and reduce the number of hardwoods. Sabal palms are adapted to, and usually resprout after, fire. Fire generally consumes the leaves.
Jono Miller said…
I'd love to have a source on the observation that the name "Sabal" originated with Native Americans.

Also curious to know what Laurie thinks of Cynthia and George Marks, who, on page 69 of BATS OF FLORIDA state that Sabal palm skirts and oaks with Spanish moss provide the roost sites for most of Florida's northern yellow bats, but other palms with thick skirts such as Washintonia,and other trees with Spanish moss are used by yellow bats as well."?

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