Palmetto is a diminutive of the word palm (“little palm”), which describes saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) well. It’s a slow growing and long-lived member of the palm family, ranging in height from only 3 to 6 feet.
This sketch from my nature journal is of a manicured saw palmetto, left to grow by the developer of an upscale community. I can’t even guess at the age of these plants, as they live into the hundreds of years. I drew this one because I’m always intrigued at what goes on behind the normally bushy palm fronds.
The stems of palmetto often recline (hence the species name repens, from the Latin for creeping or spreading), and the pruned plants show the stem in a clear way. The drawing below shows how the unpruned plant normally looks.
These palmettos must have been the understory below live oak trees, as there are several tall oaks nearby. I’m more familiar with palmettos growing under pine trees in habitats called flatwoods, but it shows you how adaptable they are.
According to Wikipedia, they are the most common palm in North America. There is an attractive variety that grows on Florida’s east coast with silver-gray to blue-green leaves, as opposed to the green and yellow-green leaves found in our area.
The genus name Serenoa honors Sereno Watson, an expedition botanist for Yale, who later took a position at Harvard.
A most useful plant, saw palmetto provides food, cover, and habitat for birds, mammals, and reptiles. Wikipedia reports that saw palmetto is the only larval food for Batrachedra decoctor, a moth that seems to be elusive on the Internet, as I tried in vain to find a photo.
Native peoples historically used palmetto for food, medicine, shelter and cordage. Settlers used the buds like hearts of palm, and the berries as a survival food. I’ve read that palmetto berries are an acquired taste – which some people seem to enjoy, but others find horrible. Most Florida plant enthusiasts have heard the taste described as “rotten cheese steeped in tobacco” (the words of Quaker merchant Jonathan Dickinson, shipwrecked on the southeast coast of Florida in 1696).
Saw palmetto buds can be eaten like those of cabbage palms, but harvesting them kills the plant. Sometimes young cabbage palms are mistaken for saw palmettos. The saw palmetto has “saw teeth” on the petiole (leaf stem) of the palm frond, but the cabbage palm has a smooth stem. The leaf structure of the two is also different: the petiole of saw palmetto ends at the leaf base, while the cabbage palm has a sturdy midrib extending from the stem to the leaf tip.
Palmetto berries are used extensively in Europe and the US as an herbal remedy for prostate enlargement and for various urinary ailments. At one time, the demand for berries threatened the reproduction of palmettos on private property and state parks. I remember news reports of poachers stripping bushes in the middle of the night and the occasional rattlesnake bite suffered by unwary gatherers.
There’s a lot more that can be written about this interesting and useful palm; I invite you to browse some of the links in this post to find out more yourself!
You can click on the top image to view it larger on my Flickr photostream.