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Past Articles Library | Trees | How to Propagate and Care for Sabal Palm

Sabal or cabbage palm is a landscape staple that can be found in southern states.  As a matter of fact, it is the state tree for both South Carolina and Florida.  While it can be found in the south, the sabal palm can be grown in areas that do not dip below 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the landscape, this tree is very versatile.  It can be used as a specimen tree inland and closer to the seashore.  This tree can also be found growing wild in many different environments, which includes mixed hardwood forests, and freshwater wetlands.  The one thing that this palm cannot tolerate is exposure to salty or brackish water for a long period of time.

This understory tree has an interesting relationship with not only humans but also the environment.  Humans have used different parts of this tree for years.  The Seminoles used the leaves to create nets, and roofing material for their traditional homes.  The trunk was used to create poles and other tools.  When the cowboys came to Florida with the cattle drive, they also took advantage of a unique aspect of the sabal palm.  What is this?  Well, the fact is that the cowboys took advantage of a natural process that occurs with this palm.  The natural process I refer to is the dying back of the leaves.  As the leaves die along the trunk, a leaf base remains.  This base creates a crisscross pattern that goes up the tree trunk.  These leaf bases then become known as “boots.”  As the boots age, they will pull away from the trunk, which creates a hook like structure.  This structure was used by the cowboys to hang their boots on in the evening.  This served two purposes.  First, it kept insects out and second it allowed the cowboy to keep track of their boots.

Mother Nature also takes advantage of these “boots, which create little microenvironments for many species of insects, frogs, and plants.  As important and useful as these “boots” are, many people have them removed before planting.  It is believed that this gives the sabal palm a better appearance.  While this does not hurt the survival of the palm, it does expose the palm to unnecessary stress. 

Propagating Sabal Palm

While sabal palms can be dug up from the wild in southern states, another approach is to start your own from seed.  In very warm climates, the sabal palm can produce flowers and seeds year round but in general this palm will produce seed in the spring and fall.  The start of this process is the flowering, which appears as creamy white to light yellow bisexual flowers.  Once these flowers have been pollinated, the plant produces a unique seed.  Why is this seed unique?  Well, sabal palm seeds are referred to as drupes.  A drupe is a seed that has essentially three layers.  These layers start out with a hard center that is followed by a meaty middle layer and then a thin outer skin.

Once these drupes have formed, they will be green.  Ripe drupes that are a ready for planting are black.  At this point, I know you are thinking how am I going to get the drupes.  Well, as they ripen they will fall to the ground by which they can be harvested. 

After you have collected your drupes, you can plant them in a container or place them in the ground directly.  The latter approach is the one used most since it allows the plant to grow in its natural environment but if you insist on planting yours in a pot, the steps are simple.  To begin this process, one will need to clean and sterilize a 6-inch container that has a drainage hole.  Sterilization is easy to do and simply means one cleans the pot in a bucket of water with a capful of bleach.  Once that is done, rinse the pot in clear water and place in the sun to dry. 

After it has dried, place drainage material in the bottom of the container and fill with a sandy soil mix.  Since the seeds are small, simply plant the seeds ¼ deep and cover with sand.  Water in and monitor the soil moisture. 

Place your seed(s) outside and in two to three months you should see germination occurring.

Regardless of which approach you choose, the next step is to plant your sabal palm in your landscape.  If you dug up your palm, you will find that it typically does not have much of the root system left.  To overcome this, one will need to dig the hole for the palm right after the rainy season.  This will allow the palm to use the water stored in its trunk until a new root system is grown. 

The next step is to measure off the planting space.  The sabal palms need to be place 8 to 10 feet apart.   This gives the plants enough room for their leaves to its maximum of 5 to 8 feet.

When it comes to the hole, make sure it is the same depth as the root system and twice the width.  Once that is done, take the remove soil and mix in a slow-release fertilizer.  Now, to aid in your palm’s growth, remove as many leaves as possible without removing them all.  While this seems counterproductive, it actually is very helpful to the plant.  It cuts down on transpiration and allows the palm to conserve moisture, which is one of the biggest killers to palms.

After you have placed your palm in the hole, it is time to stake the plant.  This will keep it from toppling over until a root system has been created.

At this point, the key to success when it comes to growing sabal palms is irrigation.  Lack of water is a major killer of young and/or transplanted sabal palms. 

In about 15 to 24 months, your transplanted palm will regain its beauty and will be topped with a flush of leaves. 

Sabal Palm Diseases

Ganoderma butt rot and Texas Phoenix palm decline are two plant diseases that the sabal palm suffers from.  The Ganoderma butt rot is a fungus that attacks the older parts of the palm.  It produces a “conk,” which is the fruiting body of the fungus.  Once this appears, the fungus is transported by wind to other areas. 

The Texas Phoenix palm decline is a quick killing plant disease that is caused by sap feeding insects.  Currently, only a few counties in Florida have reported this disease.  Regardless of which one you may find, the plant will need to be destroyed.

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Planting Depth

As a general rule, most bulbs are planted at a depth that is equal to 3 times their diameter at their widest point.

Tulips like to be planted about 6 inches (15.2 cm) deep and 4-6 inches (10.2-15.2 cm) apart.

Always plant bulbs as soon as possible after purchase to prevent them from drying out.

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