When I was a child we would take the train from south Florida to Michigan to visit my grandparents. I always knew we were almost home when large majestic trees ceded to ugly, half-dead looking cabbage palms growing out of thickets of saw palmetto. I remember wondering why our land had to be so unattractive. Now when I drive north of West Palm Beach, that area I remember as wild and ugly is developed and manicured and fertilizer green. And I have come to miss and deeply appreciate what once was.
Perhaps I have come to admire cabbage palms because of my ﬁrst-hand experience in my own yard here in Coral Gables. When we moved here over 30 years ago we had two small palms and one plant which was barely a seedling. The seedling is now a respectable size and the two small palms are 15’ tall, thick with thatch and lovely additions to our garden. These are beautiful small trees! And I have come to see that they serve as a local nursery, where ferns and orchids and (yes!) strangler ﬁgs grow in their comfy thatch. The small white ﬂowers are a good source of nectar for bees and butterﬂies, and the black berries are an important food source for birds and small mammals. The old dead fronds which I used to hate are useful hideouts for frogs and bats. The palms grow slowly . . . really slowly . . . and if the limestone bed is close to the surface they grow even more slowly.
The old cabbage palms on the swale around the Coral Gables golf course and George Merrick’s home on South Greenway Drive resemble trees in a tundra environment—small with dense trunks—you can even guess at years of stress by the way the trunk constricts at certain points. And all those tall cabbage palms harvested from private lands you see brought in for landscape jobs? The University of Florida estimates that an average tree with 20’ of trunk is 50 years old. That means many of our 30-50’ transplanted cabbage palms are 75 to 100 years old! Now that’s majestic!
By Betsy Tilghman