A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Our State Tree, the Cabbage Palm, now at risk.


A news story broke July 24th regarding anomalous die off of mature cabbage palm trees "in the Tampa Bay area". The irony, as I see it, is that I've noticed the phenomenon most in the community of Palmetto. [The scientific name is Sabal palmetto.] I have been watching these trees die for several years now, and if you want to see them for yourself simply drive north out of downtown Palmetto on Business 41. After you clear the last traffic light ( 17th St. West?) the road starts to curve to the east and you'll pass between a declining orange grove on your right and a cow pasture on your left. If you have a spotter in the passenger  seat they can probably eyeball twenty dying and recently dead cabbage palms before going through the curve that rejoins with 41. 

Sadly these are mature trees that appear to be unstressed by any change in land use practices -- in other words they otherwise appear to be as healthy as cabbage palms anywhere. And these are not palms succumbing to rising sea level -- the cause of the last big Sabal palm die off.

Many of you know I have been researching and writing about our state tree, the Cabbage Palm. This native palm has been a workhorse in the landscape industry, in part because it is so successful and relatively pest free. It doesn't occupy space in nursery rows -- landscapers simply buy palms from ranchers; in part because that works and in part because the trees grow too slowly to be profitable in a traditional nursery context.


Although cabbage palms do pop up in landscapes where they were not planted, they are a quintessential component of Florida.  Simply put, Florida would not be Florida without cabbage palms. 

Nor I suppose would South Carolina (its their state tree as well). They are as central to both states’ past and present as oaks and pines. Cabbage palms are imbued with some remarkable powers (they seem to be nearly immune to fire, wind and flooding) and they behave contrary to most trees in many ways: they have greater girth when young than when old and they produce more shade when young than old. And they’re far easier to transplant when old than young. As a result developers and landscapers now rely on them to add a feeling of substance to developments where the concrete is not fully cured, but before them, Seminole and settler alike depended on them for both food and shelter.

They play key roles in a puzzlingly wide diversity of ecosystems from barrier island dunes, to everglades tree islands, to riverine hammocks, helping to support everything from black bears to hummingbirds. It can be argued they played a pivotal role in our war for independence and helped spark American environmentalism. And they may hold insights to longevity – featuring individual cells that may live for centuries.


For a plant of such import, relatively little is known. They are commonly characterized as being fast growing, but also appear to be one of our slowest growing native trees. They seem ubiquitous in most of peninsular Florida, but may have naturally occurred in only about two thirds of the state. They appear in two dramatically different forms, one smooth-trunked (like a broom handle according to John Muir), the other sheathed in a lattice of persistent leaf bases, creating a basketweave effect. Every Florida naturalist is forced to explain the existence of these two forms to neophytes who assume they must be different species, yet there is no sound, adopted theory that accounts for the difference. No one seems to know how long they live, precisely where the state champion resides or why their natural range seemed so limited when they now are growing in Arkansas, -- (and rumor has it,


While the article announcing the die off is alarming and saddening enough, the worst part is that the state may not have the resources needed to understand and possibly confront the problem. According to the article that ran in the Sarasota Herald Tribune:

The disease is hitting the state during a tight budget year and University of Florida research funding has taken a hit. Officials can still turn to federal and private grants, and a proposal to dip into a small emergency fund is being considered, said Jack Battenfield, a spokesman for UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

"We don't have some of the freedoms we might have had before," Battenfield said. "The budget's tighter. We've got to look at things we can do most effectively, most efficiently, and have the biggest impact."


Is the disease here in Sarasota? I don't know, but I am noticing more cabbage palms dying for no apparent reason. That may simply be because of my increased awareness. I've been watching one die at the intersection of De Soto and University and take snapshots with my phone when I am at the light on De Soto.

It is sobering to drive past trees that could easily be more than a hundred years old and see them inexplicably killed in place, their limp fronds collapsing, dangling and finally falling. The specter of this problem spreading from groves and pastures to places like Myakka River State Park is truly depressing. 

If journalists or researchers wish to contact me about this matter they may call 941-320-3846.