This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V26", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Among the native growths of Carolina, no tree, perhaps, has been an object of greater interest than the Palmetto, and from the earliest dates of civilization on her shores, it has received distinguished attention from scientists, historians, poets and utilitarians. Marking, as it does, the confines or border lands of the tropic region, and belonging to the great family of Palms - than whose genera no other tribe has afforded more grace or majesty of style, or whose foliage presents greater variety or elegance of form - it has been invested with a sort of poetic or romantic sentiment, linking it, in some fascinating, mysterious way, with its illustrious kindred species of "Araby the Blest;" with the temples and sacred groves of India; the jungles of the Amazon, whose wonderful vegetable life aroused astonishment even in a Humboldt; with the Cingalese, whose sacred books relative to the religion of Buddha are written on the laminae of its leaves; and with the clustering, stately columns towering up from oases of the desert, whose graceful, plumy crests furnish grateful, nourishing food, and overshadow the precious, blessed fountains of a thirsty land.
How rich in association, how diversified in beauty and usefulness!
Adopted as the emblem of his State, no South Carolinian, whether at home or in distant lands, but remembers with pride this feature of his State's escutcheon. He regards it, from a loyal citizen's point of view, as symbolical of all that is patriotic, noble and chivalrous.
Although the great tribe of Palmaceae embraces nearly one thousand species, which are widely distributed over the tropical and semi-tropical territory of the earth, with the exception of a few recent discoveries in Southern California, only five are indigenous to the United States, and these are confined to the seaboard of the South Atlantic and Gulf States; contiguity to salt water seeming essential to their existence, as they are not found in the interior far from the coast. Palmetto is the general name for all our native species, which are, the Dwarf Palmetto - Corypha pumila, of Walter and Bartram, and Sabal pumila of Adanson; the Creeping Palmetto - Corypha repens, of Walter and Bartram; Sabal minima, of Nutall; the Saw Palmetto Corypha serrulata, of Bartram; Chamaerops, serrulata of Michaux; the Blue Palmetto - Chamaerops hystrix, Frazer, and our typical Palmetto- Corypha Palmetto of Walter, and Chamaerops p. of Michaux. It is now designated as Sabal palmetto, and the serrulata is also placed in that genus; but we are told that the meaning of the generic name is obscure.
May it not pertain to " sabulous," since both species are most commonly found in sandy barrens?
Dr. F. A. Michaux, son of the great botanist, in his travels in this country, speaks of the Sabal Palmetto as the " Cabbage Palm."But Dr. Shlecut, in his Flora Carolinensis, says the true Cabbage Palm is an exotic, the Areca oleracea of the West Indies, whose majestic shafts " rise to the height of from one hundred and seventy to two hundred feet." Our Palmetto attains a height of from twenty-five to fifty feet, and also furnishes a "cabbage," which is esteemed one of the greatest delicacies of the table. This dainty is the terminal bud, or heart, and consists of the thin, white, succulent, embryonic leaves which overlap each other in brittle flakes, sweet to the taste, and having a delicate flavor of almonds. After boiling in soft water until quite tender, it is dressed with olive oil or melted butter, or with a rich, velvety mayon-aise, and constitutes a dish which no epicure would scorn. Cut in cross sections of an inch in thickness, or in fancy shapes, or minced for Axjar, and treated with good vinegar and spices, it makes a delicious pickle.
But it is an extravagant luxury, and one which, if indulged often and extensively, would soon exterminate the species, as every cabbage taken dooms the tree to die.
Experience has proved that Palmetto is the most durable of all timber, under water being almost indestructible, and that it is not subject to the inroads of the teredo navalis, or ship worm, which makes such swift havoc with other woods. Hence it is esteemed most valuable for the construction of wharves and jetties, and the spongy yet tough and elastic character of its texture has demonstrated its fitness for employment in military works of defence, as witness the fort on Sullivan's Island during the Revolution; for, had it not been for the stout resistance of the palmetto logs and sand-bags of which the fortification was constructed, Sir Peter Parker, of H. B. M. fleet, would doubtless have had his own way with the brave Col. Moultrie and the devoted band of patriots under his command.
The structural character of Palmetto is peculiar and interesting. It has no bark proper, and is composed of a pith-like interior, throughout which is distributed irregularly, apparently with no special law of arrangement, queer bundles of woody fibre, which being closely compacted together and pressed towards the exterior or rind, by the deposition of matter and the formation of new bundles of fibres within, (as in all endogens,) the outer portion becomes extremely hard or horny. This indurated fibrous tissue is susceptible of a high polish, and is extensively manufactured into walking canes, the grotesque graining forming the chief attraction.
The spongy interior of the trunk is cut into blocks of convenient size, and used for scouring purposes, the soft pith soon wearing away, leaving the strong fibre as a coarse brush. The blades, from six to eight feet in length, and at their junction with the petiole, laid in numerous uniform pleats like a folded fan, are found capable of supplying many domestic needs. They are made into a fine quality of paper. Boiled, shreded on a hatchel and dried in the sunshine, they form excellent stuffing for mattresses and upholstery. They are split and braided into baskets, mats, hats, and fancy articles. Stripped up into narrow widths and attached to handles, they furnish the best of fly and mosquito brushes, and though lacking the grace and beauty of the peacock's plumes, are far more durable and satisfactory in their work.
The filamentous nerves which mark the divisions of the leaf, forming a fringe at the extremities, are netted into hammocks and twisted into ropes. We may judge of the strength of the fibre of some of the species, when we are told that in India they are used to make ropes for suspension bridges, and for lassoing elephants. The fruit of the Sabal Palmetto is a small black drupe, which is often eaten by consumptives spending the winter in Florida, who suppose they possess properties healing to the lungs.
Of the Serrulata, or Saw Palmetto, Dr. Shecut says, (in 1806) "These have the common characteristics of Palmetto, and on the Sea Islands of Georgia are so closely matted together as to render the same almost impenetrable. Indeed, the whole of the maritime part of Georgia, and from Pocotaligo, Carolina, to Florida, in the route I took through those parts, presented a profusion of this species, which are armed with acute spines closely arranged along the edges of the stems, to the annoyance of man and beast. The mode of flowering is similar to that of other species of Palms, and is succeeded by fruit of the drupa kind, the size of a large plum, of a dark purple color, the pulp having an uncommon sweet taste. They are pleasant and tempting to the eye, but strangers pay dear if their curiosity leads them to eat one, although the Indians, swine, deer and bears are excessively fond of them".
The root of this species when burned, yields the greatest amount of potash, it is said, of any known vegetable product. Charleston, S. C.