How To Properly Care For Sabal Palm Trees

Sabal palms are a staple of Florida landscapes, being quite an attractive tree with their tall trunks and wispy fronds swaying in the breeze, creating a tropical feel anywhere they are planted. They are hardy palms and with proper care and maintenance can be the star of your landscape show.

Native to the southern United States, Cuba and the Bahamas, the sabal palmetto palm was designated as the official state tree of Florida in 1953 and is proudly pictured on the Florida state seal. It is also known as the cabbage palm because of its round shape and it can be harvested for food. The terminal bud is harvested and is commonly known as the “heart of palm”. You can find it in local supermarkets packaged in jars and cans. While “heart of palm” is quite delicious and nutritious, harvesting the terminal bud renders the tree unable to produce new leaves and this process will ultimately kill the palm tree. The larger the tree, the larger the harvest will be. Grown from seed in the wild, sabal palms can take 15+ years to show visible trunk growth and once they do, they grow about 6 inches per year until maturity is reached and that rate slows to about 1 inch per year. Sabal palms can be successfully transplanted when they are over 10 feet tall and their trunks have stored enough water to be able to provide it with what it needs to survive until new roots have been established; which can take 8 months or longer. Palms can absorb water from their trunks as well as their roots so when planting a palm, it is good to water the trunk along with the ground. Although transplanting and establishing these palms can be a little tricky, they are very hardy once they have established roots. Sabal palms are very tolerant of salt water which enables them to grow where many trees would not survive. They can even survive temperatures of 15 F° for short periods of time. Sabal palms can grow quite tall and can sustain heavy hurricane force winds making them an ideal tree for areas prone to hurricanes. Technically, palms are not a tree but are classified as a grass. Since they are a grass, they are the only "tree" that has no tree rings in the center of it.

If your sabal palm has experienced high force winds, you will want to assess the damage. If there is damage to the fronds but they are still attached and green, leave them there as long as possible so the palm can absorb the nutrients from those fronds to repair any damage that is not visible. What if your sabal palm was uprooted in the storm? Stand it upright, replant it at the same depth and brace it as soon as possible. It may take the palm 6 months or more to reestablish its root system; during this time, it is not recommended to fertilize. If the palm was not uprooted you can resume your normal fertilization schedule following a storm. If your palm was surrounded by salt water during a flood, it is recommended that you heavily soak the area around the palm with fresh water.

To acquire the most aesthetically pleasing sabal palm tree, you must prune it once or twice a year. Early summer is an ideal time to prune sabal palms because this is when they produce seed heads that can be messy and make the tree look scraggly and unkept. Another reason it is a good idea to prune the seed heads early is, if the seeds drop around the tree, you will all of a sudden have hundreds of palm tree sprouts coming up around the tree and they are very hard to kill! Even Round Up will not kill palm tree sprouts! Insects, including bees are attracted to palm blooms so if you go to prune a palm while it is blooming, watch out! When pruning a palm, remove all the dead fronds along with the seed heads and leave as much of the green fronds as possible. As the fronds are pruned, a "boot" is left on the trunk where it was attached. The term boot comes from its close resemblance to devices that were used to help people remove the boots from their feet. Over time, these boots will become loose and ragged looking. It's okay to cut the boots away and clean up the trunk of the tree. You can also embrace the growth of ferns in the boots which adds greenery to the trunk and does not hurt the tree. One mistake many people make when pruning palms is removing too many fronds. Palms (and all plants for that matter) need their leaves to carry on photosynthesis to produce energy for the plant. Removing too many fronds takes away the tree's ability to do this, weakening the plant. Potassium is found within the leaves of palms and aids in their nutrition. As the old fronds die, the remaining potassium is relocated to the new fronds. Potassium deficiencies can present themselves in a couple of ways. One is the premature loss of fronds and two is yellowing of the fronds. It can take around 2 to 3 years for nutrient deficiencies to balance out with regular fertilization. Cutting green fronds can also result in stunted growth, increase the likelihood of disease, and reduce the ability the palm has to withstand hurricane force winds. A full 360° canopy of green leaves is best for a sabal palm, like most palm species.

Proper care and fertilization are the best ways to prevent disease and nutrient deficiencies in palms. Studies done by UF/IFAS have shown that proper fertilization done regularly helped correct deficiencies and prevent them in most soil types throughout Florida. For more details on the process of fertilization, disease treatments and insect treatments visit the University of Florida IFAS extension website.

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