Did you know that there are four different palm species that are native to the southeastern USA?
Of course, there are plenty of different kinds of palms grown in cultivation that are not native.
One need only go to central and south Florida or California to understand that. But from northern Florida up to coastal North Carolina, there are indeed 4 different species which occur naturally in the wild.
The state tree of South Carolina and Florida (Sabal palmetto, which most people just call palmetto or cabbage palm) first comes to mind. It occurs naturally along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and is grown commonly as a cultivated plant well inland.
Dwarf palmetto, or Sabal minor, is commonly seen as a shrubby plant, without an upright trunk, in swamps throughout the coastal plain, and rarely into the piedmont, all the way to Texas and Arkansas.
Saw palmetto, Serenoa repens, is very abundant from the South Carolina Lowcountry well into southern Florida, and then west to Louisiana; this is the low, shrubby palm you see by the thousands along I-95 if you drive to Florida.
Finally, needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is our rarest: it is a handsome plant, producing a short trunk and occurring naturally in only a few places in Jasper and Beaufort counties in South Carolina (its northern limit) and then south through central Florida and west to Mississippi. That’s enough geography for now.
There are several thousand other species of palms around the world, mostly in the tropics.
As a group, they are enormously useful for humans, providing food, beverage, building material, fuel and, of course, ornamental value.
All these species can be divided into two groups on the basis of their leaves. Feather palms have the divisions of their leaf blades laterally distributed along both sides of a central midrib, resembling a feather. (Coconut palm would be a good example.)
Fan palms have their leaf divisions more or less clustered in a circular or fan-like system, toward the end of the midrib. All of the native southeastern palm species belong to the latter group.
Our Mystery Plant is not at all native, although it is sometimes mistaken for Sabal palmetto, the palmetto tree.
It is a frequently grown as an ornamental and can tolerate cold rather well, sometimes in the winter draped with snow and ice.
The plant pictured is growing in my backyard, and it survived our really cold weather this past winter.
A native of eastern Asia and Japan, this plant grows rather slowly but can get up to 30 feet tall or so.
The leafstalks are prickly, equipped with small, sharp teeth. Perhaps the trunk is the most characteristic part of the plant: it produces plenty of black, coarse fibers that impart a wild, wooly look.
For more information on the palms, take a look at “Palms throughout the World,” by David L. Jones, published in 1995 by the Smithsonian Institution Press.
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email email@example.com.
[Answer: “Windmill palm,” Trachycarpus fortunei]