Not Your Average Little Palm Tree
Looking into this plant gave me a new appreciation for palm trees which was a surprise because I already loved palm trees. I mean who doesn't love palm trees? But they aren't just a pretty tree that symbolizes a great weather vacation. They are so important to the whole subtropical and tropical ecosystem and they are highly nutritious for humans too.
The most popular palm tree of all time is the coconut palm. It was the state tree of Florida for many years. That is until 1953 when garden clubs of Florida convinced the legislature that the Sabal Palmetto palm was more representative of Florida because it was the most common palm tree in Florida. The coconut palm or Cocoa Palm only grows in south Florida from Stuart and Punta Gorda down throughout the Florida Keys.
I don't think that everyone was particularly excited about the change because it took them almost 20 years to change it on the State Seal of Florida. Another reason it was changed is because the Cocoa Palm is not indigenous to Florida. No one is really sure where it originally came from because as you can imagine everyone loves the cocoa palm and it was spread all over the place by man. On top of this a coconut can float a long distance and still germinate when it washes ashore someplace else, so nature spread it around too. The most common guesses of origin are the South Pacific or the West Indies.
Now if you are confused as to why I am talking about this, it is because confusion runs rampant when you are trying to differentiate between palm trees. While I was trying to find out what the Saw Palmetto looked like I ran into so much confusion and in the process had to learn about palm trees in general. Having lived in Florida added to my confusion.
Inhabitants of Florida refer to palm trees loosely and the common name cabbage palm refers to both the sabal palmetto and the saw palmetto! And that is based on which one you know. It is more officially the sabal I think, and people just confuse them, maybe. Imagine my confusion. Neither of them look anything like a cabbage and they are both totally different. In fact, the saw palmetto isn't even a tree! It is more like a creeping bush.
So descriptions I read about the cabbage palm contradicted! But both of them have those stiff hard sharp leaves arranged like a big fan or loosely like the palm of the hand only with about 20 fingers. And both are indigenous to Florida. And people attribute saw palmetto's healing properties to the sabal palmetto which makes for more confusion. In fact one of the common names listed for the saw palmetto is sabal berries!
This made me appreciate binomial nomenclature! The Saw Palmetto's latin name is Serenoa repens. Serenoa is the botanist who first described the plant and repens means crawling. The latin name for the Sabal is Sabal palmetto. As mentioned it is the state tree of Florida, and also of South Carolina. Palmetto means both little palm and also refers to the palmlike arrangement of the leaves. It is also the common name for all of the palms with those fan leaves. So that just adds to the confusion.
Palmettos generally grow up to 20-60 feet while other palms grow up to 100 feet. But the saw palmetto creeps along the ground and reaches 5-10 feet in height and 4-10 feet wide. The genus name Sabal isn't described anywhere as to meaning or derivation that I could find, but as a name it means powerful or strong from an Eastern Indian language.
Oh and I finally found out why the name cabbage palm. Have you ever eaten hearts of palm? It is basically the inner part of a stem of the plant which contains the immature leaves that would surface and unfurl out of the stem if left to mature. That's those layered flakes when you cut into the heart of palm in you salad. Well both the Sabal and the saw palmetto have hearts that are described as having the same smell, taste and texture of cabbage. And the people describing this were not interested in latin names or differentiation, they were interested in eating that cabbage like heart found in both species.
Incidentally, hearts of palm are extremely nutritious with 17 amino acids. They were used to heal muscle injuries. Who would have guessed that!
Identifying the Saw Palmetto
So now finally a description of the Serenoa repens or Saw Palmetto:
This plant is the most common palm in Florida's wild areas. It is basically ground cover and is most likely found around the base of other trees. It has those stiff sharp fanlike palm leaves attached to the plant by stalks (which are huge petioles) that are smooth except for the sharp teeth along their edges. It's like a saw edge, hence the “saw palmetto”.
These plants have a growing pattern up to 10 feet high, but typically they are 4-5 feet. The stems rarely stand erect so there is no trunk but sometimes you find one that is erect or it rises off the ground and then curves back to it. Most commonly the stem runs along the ground or slightly underground and "stem shoots" come out of that vertically at the end of the stem and then the stem on the ground extends to form a new end and then a new shoot and then a new end and a new shoot and so on.
Back to hearts of palm for a minute: The heart of a stem is practically the whole tree when there is only one central trunk, so harvesting the palm heart kills the tree. So it would make sense to harvest cabbage palm hearts from the saw palmetto instead of the single stemmed sabal, because it has so many stems and harvesting a few stems won't kill the plant. This is true except for the fact that both trees are protected. So these days you can't legally forage for cabbage palm hearts because the sabal is the state tree and the saw palmetto has recently become protected too for another reason. Well there is always the possibility of growing it on your own, but it still holds that saw palmetto would be the better idea.
In case you are wondering what palm is used to get palm hearts commercially, a cultivar called the peach palm was developed from the date palm with many stems for this purpose.
Saw palmettos are indigenous to Florida but have spread as far north as South Carolina and as far west as Texas. They are very slow growing, but are very long-lived and hardy. In Florida where the plant is indigenous there are saw palmettos as old as 500-700 years!
So Many Uses of Saw Palmetto
Saw palmetto leaves were used for thatching in huts by the indigenous Indians. This is reflected by the word Kanapaha which is a combination of of kana meaning palmetto leaves and paha meaning house in the Timicula Indian language referring to their dwellings. The Timiculas were one of the three tribes in Florida before the time of the Seminoles.
Saw palmetto fibers have been found with materials of indigenous Indians as far north as Wisconsin and New York, so this strongly suggests that it must have been widely traded prior to European contact.
The leaves of the saw palmetto are usually green, but the closer they get to the salty coast the more silvery they become. And the color changes too, to a bluish green. These variations are used in horticulture and landscaping. They go under cultivar names like Sericea, Cinerea or Glauca. Sericea refers to the botanist first describing the silvery leaves, Cinerea refers to a grayish color and Glauca means bluish grey.
In the Spring 3 foot flower stalks grow with small cream colored flowers. Bees love these flowers and that's how delicious saw palmetto honey is made.
Then yellow, orange or red berries appear and they ripen to reddish brown or bluish black from August through October.
Various parts of the saw palmetto plant are eaten by many different animals from racoons and opossums to wild pigs and bears. When the fruit is eaten, seed is spread around as it is deposited back into the ground in different places.
Many animals take shelter in the plant. An endangered species called the Florida grasshopper sparrow builds its nest near it and it is the plant of choice for the Florida panther to rest in and also to give birth to new cubs in.
Rodents use the stems as structural support in their ground nests. Wild turkeys use the leaves as nesting cover and white tailed deer use it to escape predators and for shelter on cold windy days.
The saw palmetto is a host plant for the larvae of the palmetto skipper butterfly and the Monk Butterfly.
This ground cover is actually key to practically every wild thing in the wilderness and it is important to humans for its nutritional powers as well.
Saw Palmetto Benefits
Through its long history saw palmetto has been used for many things.
Native Americans ate the berries for nutrition and to stimulate the appetite.
Indigenous peoples of Florida and the Bahamas were said to use it to help a strange kind of poisoning from fish.
Doc Ellingwood a famous Eclectic doctor used it to make women fertile and to increase milk flow in nursing mothers.
Properties mentioned in research include use for: basic nutrition since it has carbohydrates, proteins and is a good source of fats; relaxation; fluid balance; energy balance; digestive aid; overall strengthening and toning; heart health; thyroid health; helping to clean out lungs; muscle strengthening; building up tissue; supporting the endocrine system and stemming uncomfortable overreactions of the immune system which undercuts a lot of serious problems. Use your imagination on that.
In his book Back to Eden Jethro Kloss said that saw palmetto fruit was useful in helping any problem of the reproductive system of both sexes and is a general tonic in times of ill health. He also said it was good for any respiratory symptoms and kidney health.
It has even been shown to help with balding. A study was published by the Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine in April 2002 that showed that out of 19 men, ages 23-64 given 200 mg a day of saw palmetto for four and a half months, 60% of them improved.
How does this one berry do all this? Well it contains over 100 known compounds that affect health. The most sought after ingredients appear to be in the fat of the berry. This has been found to contain 85 to 95 percent fatty acids such aslauric, caprylic, and caproic acid. Also there are long-chained alcohols and sterols. These can between them affect all systems in some way making hormones and other regulatory compounds as well as antioxidants and parts for construction of tissue and many other things.
Because of this there are many proposed mechanisms as to how, but no certainty on any of them. This is probably because in nature it doesn't work one way. Scientists love to think of it that way, but synergy is natures way. That's why the wisest thing is to just partake of the whole berry.
I want to make sure you understand the connection between the urinary and reproductive system regarding saw palmetto.
The urinary system includes the kidney, bladder and tubes called ureters and a urethra. The kidneys filter the blood and dissolve the impurities into urine. The ureters take the urine from the kidneys to the bladder which stores the urine. Then when the bladder is full, the urine exits the bladder through a single tube called the urethra which carries the urine out. In males the urethra tube passes through the prostate, which is part of the male reproductive system, on the way out.
That final piece of urethra which is past the opening where sperm can enter the urethra, is also used by the reproductive system. So the male systems intertwine and a problem with the prostate easily affects the urinary system. If the prostate enlarges, it presses on the urethra and the poor guy can't urinate, at least as much as he needs to and the whole system can back up. That then can cause there to be more pressure in all the fluid systems including the blood. This unhealthy situation can degenerate rapidly into something serious for all systems. When you get the flowing systems of the body, not flowing, that spells trouble sooner or later.
Somehow saw palmetto helps the urinary system in the female as well as the male. And both systems, urinary and reproductive, are legendary for their possible problems, hence the berry is getting a lot of attention.
Protection of saw palmetto was brought about because people hearing about its possible benefits to the prostate and the urinary system in general began to over harvest the berries harming the species reproduction.
That's where we come in. You can get your daily supply of pure organic saw palmetto berries in a convenient veggie capsule with 1000 mg per serving. No harvesting license or trip to Florida needed.
So in closing, the saw palmetto is an unusual palm plant you can't really call a tree. It has gained popularity because of the possibility of solving prostate problems, but helps practically everything including the kidneys and the thyroid and is a very nutritious food. This is one of those things that could be an excellent adventure. Try some saw palmetto and see what it does for you!