The Ancients Among Us
A prevalent, sub-tropical species inhabiting the Florida landscape has been here all along and its roots run deep.
On a recent walk around my neighborhood, and for the purpose of this story, I took a long look at each manicured yard, counting the palm trees and examining their physical traits. Some showcased bushy, feather-like fronds (the Foxtails), several bore fruit (the coconut tree) and others were quite tall with a smooth gray trunk and a bright green crownshaft (the Royal Palm). Each tree was beautiful and majestic in its own way and symbols of the lush, tropical life Florida is rightly known for.
A few sections of the neighborhood — the foliage outliers — untouched by human hands and spared as home builders tore through this section of land nearly two decades ago, sat quietly along the roadside, as if their only function was to provide a passing shade to dogs walking their humans or humans walking themselves. I saw pine trees, live oak, firebush, shrubs, Florida Thatch Palm, and more, each varying shades of green, growing wild and messy, existing in tandem with the other.
Nestled within the plants and trees —the sabal palmetto — a native ‘old-timer’ and the subject of this story. It’s also the designated Florida state tree, though it’s not a tree, and more like bamboo, related genetically to grasses. The sabal palm showcases a full, round head of fronds, mostly green, with a few brown fronds hanging below. You can easily find the palm everywhere, including the official Florida state seal seen on flags, souvenirs and apparel, and yet, admittedly, it’s an overlooked part of the landscape. And perhaps I speak for others when I say this: the sabal palm is always there — has always been there — but is rarely seen.
Always Been There
Florida —the humid, subtropical peninsula brimming with forests, swamps, wetlands, wildlife, and coastlines — is old.
About 36-40 million years ago, Florida was a small oval-shaped landmass formed near sea level, stretching from the Volusia County region and down toward the Treasure Coast. No one can say with certainty exactly who or what was there at the time or what the land actually looked like. But plant and micro fossils reveal ancient clues — deep, wild and tangled roots — connecting primordial plant and animal remains to our life in Florida today.
In 2019, paleobotany researchers reported an overview of discoveries found along the Apalachicola River, dating back 13 to 16 million years ago, in a place called Alum Bluff, including 36 kinds of leaves, 10 types of fruits and seeds, seven unidentified fossils and a new species of elm.
One such ancient discovery was a plant that shared many similarities to the sabal palm. According to the National Park Services, sabal palms evolved around 85 million years ago, making them one of the oldest palm species in existence, even predating Florida, and also one of Florida’s longest-lasting and most ancient plants.
Despite having been for so long a staple in the Florida landscape, most of us are likely unaware of the sabal palms prehistoric and ancient beginnings in addition to their life-giving resources. But the Native Americans, given their connection to the land and interdependence upon nature, better understood and arguably appreciated the sabal palm, along with other indigenous plants and trees.
Imagine, if you can, living in Florida 500 years ago or even to a much more ancient time, when earlier humans — the Paleoindians — and later tribes such as the Calusa, Seminole and Miccosukee built settlements among diverse ecosystems and habitats. including the Everglades, dunes, forests, natural springs, rivers, and more. One common fixture found within most of these regions: the sabal palm. Oftentimes, Native Americans would use the robust fronds as roofs for huts or other village structures and strings could be pulled from the fronds to create fishing rope for rods or nets. Then, there’s the heart.
Killing a Sabal Palm
The heart of palm is a vegetable harvested from the inner core of the sabal palm—also known as cabbage palm. It’s a relatively popular addition to salads and snack plates, often found as a canned food item in the grocery store, adding a crunchy texture to any dish and offering a savory taste. They look like small, white cylinders, but each serving is packed with a heaping dose of vitamins and minerals including B6 and B2, iron, potassium, and magnesium. There’s only one caveat: in order to eat the heart of a sabal palm, you must first kill the palm itself.
It’s been said that Paleoindians and Native Americans used every part of an animal for survival, and when they killed something for food, it was out of necessity rather than sport or aesthetic. In fact, every part of the animal — from horns, blood and hides to meat, organs and hooves — served a greater purpose and were put to use within tribal communities. The same can be said of the sabal palm.
But modern humans have found other reasons to kill the palm. The obvious being urban and suburban development and deadly herbicides. But a lesser known killing method, and one that is often committed in ignorance, is pruning. Sabal palms naturally shed dead and brown fronds over time, but for those seeking bright, glittery green lawns and roadsides, any signs of death and decay among plant life, most often, are removed. But here’s the problem: the brown fronds protect the green fronds, acting not only as a barrier to disease, but also by moving nutrients up to the newer growth. And, sadly, once the fronds —both brown and green —are unnecessarily removed, the sabal palm is often met with an early and untimely death.
When ancients reclaim the future
In our limited perspective of time and existence, the concept of a future life, for many of us, will always be civilized, measurable, and orderly. Short-term threats like hurricanes, droughts, wars, and recessions may dispirit our human pursuits of happiness from time to time. But we’ll take the hits, pull up our bootstraps, and get to work. That’s what humans do. We survive— for a while.
But the very old sabal palmetto will long outlast us. In fact, the sabal palm you see today will most likely outlive you and your grandchildren’s grandchildren, with some living up to 300 years old. Even more intriguing, and a bit of a mind bender, the sabal palm you see today quite possibly was there during the American Revolutionary War. Sabal palms are truly the ancients among us.
One final note to consider: some theorize that the end of humanity is inevitable, be it through divine intervention or human self-sabotage. But the earth will survive, in some form, just as it has for about 4.54 billon years or so, brimming with life, like the primitive sabal palmetto, Florida’s state tree, that isn't a tree at all.
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