State tree. South Carolina’s state tree is the Sabal palmetto, so designated by a legislative act approved by Governor Burnet R. Maybank on March 17, 1939. The palmetto has appeared on the state seal since the Revolutionary War and on the state flag since 1861. The word “palmetto” comes from the Spanish palmito (“little palm”), and the origin of Sabal is uncertain.
The palmetto is a branchless palm with long, fanlike evergreen leaves that spread atop a thick stem, or trunk. Botanists do not consider it a true tree since it lacks a solid wood trunk. The palmetto’s range is the coastal area from North Carolina to Florida and the Florida Panhandle. It can grow as high as sixty-five feet, and mature South Carolina natives average thirty-to forty-feet tall.
The popular name “cabbage palmetto” comes from the terminal bud, or heart, of the stem. This can be eaten raw or cooked, and its taste resembles that of cabbage. Removal of the heart kills the tree. In the past some native Americans and European colonists also ate the ripe black berries, and these are still a favorite of birds.
Palmetto is a wind-adapted species, and its soft trunk and strong root system allow it to bend with high winds without breaking or being uprooted. Spongy palmetto logs were used in the construction of the Sullivan’s Island fort (later called Fort Moultrie) that absorbed British navy cannonballs, without shattering, in the battle of June 28, 1776—giving South Carolina troops the victory that is commemorated on the state seal and flag. The Sabal palmetto is also the state tree of Florida and appears on Florida’s seal and flag.
Heisser, David C. R. The State Seal of South Carolina: A Short History. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1992.
Laurie, Pete. “Palmetto Pride.” South Carolina Wildlife 35 (July–August 1988): 16–23.
Porcher, Richard D., and Douglas A. Rayner. A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
Shumake, Janice. “In Praise of the Palmetto.” Charleston Post and Courier, July 21, 2002, pp. D1, D4.