What Is a Sabal Palm?

I don’t like Sabal palms.

At least that’s what I thought a few years back after starting my research on cold hardy palms. They didn’t seem as visually appealing to me as other types and personally just looked like large, shrubby weeds.

After stumbling across some different types of Sabals online, I realized that there are some really cool variations of these trees that set them apart from other Sabal varieties.

Today, I have to admit that this genus of palms has become one of my favorites for many reasons I will explain in the following paragraphs.

So, what is a Sabal palm and should you consider growing them in your area? Let’s find out if these palms are right for you.

What Is It?

Blanketing the coastal areas of the southeast United States, the Sabal palm is made up of 15 species, most of which are quite cold hardy. It has grown in popularity due to its edibility and landscaping benefits. It is a single trunked specimen with costapalmate fronds that create a round fan shape, but develop a curved midrib taking on an almost pinnate look.

Sabal Palmetto, San Diego Botanic Garden

Sabal palms are native to the southeast U.S., Cuba, Puerto Rico and areas of South America, Mexico and Texas. Many species take the name of the actual locations they are most native to. Sabal Bermudana (Bermuda) and Sabal Texana (Texas), just to name a couple of examples.

While most of the Sabal species look quite similar to one another, there are a few species of the palm that have their own unique visual appearance. Some barely form a trunk whereas others can get up to 80 feet tall. Some have large, defined fan leaves while others have a smaller, more compact look.

A few of the most common names of the Sabal palms include cabbage palm, palmetto, Carolina palmetto and dwarf palmetto. It has been adopted as the state tree for both Florida and South Carolina and both appear on the state flags.

A Palm You Can Eat?Sabal Palm in Sacramento, CA

The Sabal palm is also well known for it’s edibility. The leaf bud, or heart of the palm has been widely used in the past to make swamp cabbage and hearts of palm salad.

Removing the heart of the palm will ultimately kill the tree, so be aware of any conservation laws that may be in place in your area.

Where Will It Grow?

Sabal palms are most commonly found along the southern gulf coast of the U.S. Other areas include Cuba, Puerto Rico, Bahamas as well as many coastal and lowland areas of Mexico. They thrive best in subtropical climates with hot, humid summers. Sabal palms are not suitable for dry desert conditions, but can handle some drought. They are being grown successfully in places like Southern California, but regular watering is needed since California does not experience the humidity and rain levels of the gulf coast. These palms can grow in cooler Mediterranean climates as well, but will have a much slower growth rate due to the cooler summers.Sabal Etonia, San Diego Botanic Garden

Most of the species are said to be cold hardy to zone 8a, however if given the right conditions most species can survive brief cold spells into the high single digits. Cold hardiness can vary greatly between them with Sabal Mauritiiformis showing leaf damage in the mid 20s, while the Sabal Minor can survive temps below zero before showing significant damage. The average minimum temps for most Sabals is in the mid teens before protective measures need to be taken.

The great thing about Sabal palms is that they are tough! They can withstand hurricanes, freezing temperatures, drought, standing water, salt water winds and can grow in many types of soil.

Who Are They For?

If you live along the coastal regions of North America, Mexico, or a subtropical climate in general, these palms will be a great fit. They will also do well in cooler areas such as the pacific northwest and even areas of British Columbia, Canada although growth will be slow since summers don’t get significant heat and humidity.

Sabal palms make a great landscape palm for yards, around pools, walkways and anyone who wants to add a more tropical feel to their property. Larger species such as the Sabal Causiarum are great for anyone who wants a huge fan palm, but will need a large area to spread out as the fronds will spread out to about 20 feet across. The dwarf varieties such as the Sabal Minor and Sabal Etonia, are great for planting as underbrush beneath larger specimens since these palms hardly develop a trunk and generally stay small.

Any Drawbacks?

Sabal Bermudana, San Diego Botanic Garden

While diseases and pests are not too common with these trees, some fertilizing may be needed to keep your palm looking its best.

While Sabal palms can tolerate a wide range of soil types, nutrient deficiencies can arise from time to time. Fertilize a few times a year with a slow release palm fertilizer. Be sure not to over fertilize as this will kill the palm, especially when young and not yet established.

The Wrap Up

If you are a resident of the southeast U.S. then you are probably quite aware of Sabal palms. For folks living in other parts of the country, especially on the west coast, the Sabal palm can be a great addition to your landscape as they aren’t as common in these areas.

Here are some key features of the Sabal palm:

  • Cold hardy to zone 8a and above.Sabal Minor, San Diego Botanic Garden
  • Perfect for coastal areas.
  • Cold & drought tolerant.
  • Wind & salt water tolerant.
  • Great as an ornamental or street tree.
  • Leaf bud (heart) is edible, but will kill the palm.
  • State tree for both Florida & South Carolina.

With 15 species of Sabals, most of which are very cold hardy, this genus of palm will give you the most variety to choose from. Looking for something that will stay small and compact? Check out the Sabal minor and Sabal etonia. If you are looking for a large specimen that will make a huge statement in your yard, check out the Sabal Causiarum or Sabal Mexicana as these will get very large!

If you are in the market to expand your cold hardy palm collection, then the Sabal palm is definitely worth checking out!

Cabbage Palm Tree - Medium

Did I miss something? Have any questions or comments? Please feel free to leave a reply!