Well folks…I'm stuck here at home this morning, because everything outside here in Columbia is covered with snow and sleet, and the whole city is pretty much shut down. I'm grateful that we're having no problems with the power: at least not yet. A power outage during a sleet storm is certainly no fun, and I hope you don't have to deal with that this winter. Will this winter ever end? Why, sure it will! Only about six weeks now, and I'm thinking that since this has been such a rough winter, that our upcoming spring and summer are going to be especially wonderful. Just a few more weeks.
This week's Mystery Plant will be a rather easy one, I think. I chose it this morning because it's right outside my den window, and it has sleet all over it, which makes this pretty timely. Yes, it is a tree, and it's native to the Atlantic and Gulf Coast, from North Carolina (the northern limit is probably near Cape Hatteras) all the way down to southern Texas. The thing is, it is a tree that is remarkably adaptable in cultivation, and now grows well outside of its original range, commonly planted as a street tree in cities, or otherwise for ornament. It's tough, and seems to be able to handle cold temperatures pretty well. It also is quite tolerant of salty soils and high winds, which explains why it is so extensively planted in coastal settings. One of the most attractive things about this species is the way its leaves are arranged on the trunk. Each leaf has its stalk eventually split at the base, and the dead blades eventually fall off. If the stalks remain, they tend to form an attractive crisscross, overlapping pattern.
Both South Carolina and Florida have selected this species as its state tree. As a South Carolinian, I'm happy to report that we had it first. (It's such a wonderful tree that I am at a loss to know why North Carolina and Georgia didn't select it as their state trees.) All that state-rivalry aside, this species did in fact have an important part in the revolutionary history of South Carolina. Our “traditional” history has this tree's logs forming the walls of Fort Moultrie, near Charleston. The fort successfully fended away pesky British warships in 1776, the ships' cannonballs ineffectually striking the soft logs. We like to think that the American victory at Ft. Sumter was in large part responsible for the defense or Charleston and later American success. (The colonials were so pleased with their tree that they put it on the newly invented state seal. If you look closely, you'll see it standing there proudly over a fallen, broken oak log…which represents the British fleet. You might also know that South Carolina's flag also features this species…but it wasn't added until the time of the Civil War).
Thanks for letting me ramble on a bit here. It's fun to have plants tied in with history. Maybe we will have an essay coming up on state flowers.
Stay warm everybody.
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Answer: “Palmetto,” Sabal palmetto]