Sunday, January 2, 2011

How Many Kinds of Palms in North Florida?

Cabbage Palm
Saw Palmetto
If asked a month ago how many kinds of palms occur naturally in Florida's Big Bend region, I would have replied "two"; they are the cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto -- Florida's state tree), and saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), the shrub-like plant with recumbent trunks forming a dense understory that covers large parts of the state. I had learned to distinguish the two by the way the leaflets attach to the petiole (=leaf stem). Cabbage palm leaflets attach to an arrowhead-like triangular extension of the petiole, whereas in saw palmetto their attachment is truly fan-like, arising from the blunt end of the petiole. 

Dwarf Palmetto
All was fine until near my house in Gainesville I began noticing what I had thought were saw palmettos. However, they lacked the characteristic saw-like teeth that arm the petioles of saw palmettos, they were small, had underground stems, and cabbage palm-like leaf attachments. They  showed no sign of becoming palm trees, so I got out my books. I discovered that they are a third species, the dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor), a fairly common plant of moist hammocks.

Scrub Palmetto (or young cabbage palm?)
I had seen similar plants on Cedar Key also, but was a bit puzzled. The dry scrub habitat there little resembles what anyone would describe as a moist hammock. Cabbage palms are abundant, but more research revealed a fourth species, the scrub palmetto (Sabal etonia). This small, stemless shrub also has cabbage palm-like leaves, but the attachment is much less acute than in its dwarf relative. More observation will be needed before I'm sure I can distinguish this species from very young cabbage palms.

We are now up to four kinds of palms that likely inhabit the region. A fifth kind, the needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is characteristic of rich woods. It has saw palmetto-like attachment of leaflets, but no sawtooth projections on its petioles. This palm has been recorded from the Waccassasa Bay State Preserve.

So, if you find yourself prowling the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge or other nearby Florida jewels, keep an eye out for all five kinds of palms.

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