Around the world, the palm tree family numbers more than 2,000 species. Most of them grow in tropical lands and are best known for the products they yield, such as oil, nuts, dates, and sugar, rather than their odd wood. Its non-grainy compaction of very hard fibers is not like wood at all.
The cabbage palmetto (Sabal palmetto) of South Carolina and Florida is a palm, also, but a far cry from its graceful tropical cousins. Cabbage palmetto is rather small and plain, barely reaching 50' tall and a 24" diameter. Nevertheless, the tree contributed mightily to our history.
When General William Moultrie defended Charleston Harbor against the British fleet on June 28, 1776, he and his patriot army of South Carolinians were protected by a stockade built of cabbage palm logs. Today, that occasion is commemorated on the state seal of South Carolina, prominently embellished with the image of a cabbage palm.
Beyond its historical value, the cabbage palm does have some commercial value. Its main claim to fame is the tender leaf bud at the top of the trunk that, when cooked, takes on a cabbage-like flavor. You'll find it canned and labeled "heart of palm" in some supermarkets. The tree's wood has little value, though, except as fence posts and poles. And cross sections of cabbage palm are occasionally worked into lustrous tabletops for the tourist trade.
Some other palm species, such as Southeast Asia's sugar palm, exhibit greater versatility. Its trunk is tapped and the liquid boiled down to a tasty sugar. When harvested young, its fruit provides sustenance, too. The outer portions of the sugar palm's trunk are made into tool handles. Other fibrous parts become rope.
Written by Peter J. Stephano Illustration: Brian Jensen