Sabal palmetto history and the making of our state flag
We Lowcountry natives are frequently said to “worship our ancestors and our oak trees.” I find “worship” a bit strong, and I would broaden “oak trees” to include palm trees, pine trees, family trees and the rest of the natural beauty and history this unique area offers.
Even if it isn’t “worship,” there is pronounced fascination with ancestry and a near obsession with outdoor pursuits among Charlestonians. Not surprisingly, our state history sometimes seems to wrap itself in or around the plants, animals and landscapes that define this place we all call home. So it is with the story of the Sabal palmetto, our state tree. Please forgive my brief foray into history as we wind our way back toward what we should know about the Sabal palmetto, or cabbage palm.
On December 1, 1945, a baby girl named Harriett Ann Guerard was born in the Fort Moultrie Army Hospital on Sullivan’s Island. This singular event was historically insignificant. It was critically important to me, however, because she was my mom. As I grew up on the Isle of Palms and attended elementary school within walking distance of the old Sullivan’s Island fort, it wasn’t lost on me that Charleston and its barrier islands had been in our family’s blood for centuries and that I would forever consider them my home.
Some 170 years before my mom was delivered, Fort Moultrie (then Fort Sullivan) was a much different place. And it would soon play a very important role in our state and national history. The year was 1776. Benjamin Guerard, several generations up our family tree, was one of several thousand troops and militia preparing to defend Charleston from an imminent British attack. Colonel William Moultrie and some of these patriots were on Sullivan’s Island trying desperately to finish a small fort made simply from palmetto trunks reinforced with sand and dirt. Only the front wall had been completed, leaving both ends largely open to attack. The tiny fortress should have been no match for the cannon fire of the newly arrived British fleet. Additionally, British troops had landed on Isle of Palms, so Moultrie had to detach some of his men to defend the island’s north end at Breach Inlet.
The nine British ships attacked at 9 a.m. on June 28, 1776, and withdrew after 12 hours, when it became too dark to fight. Four things happened that day that forever changed the history of our state and nation.
First, the British forces on the Isle of Palms learned, as many have since, that Breach Inlet is a very dangerous place. Between the depth, currents and patriot defenders, they never crossed the inlet.
Second, the British fleet found that the bars and shoals surrounding Charleston Harbor are treacherous. While maneuvering to fire into the open ends of the fort, two ships were briefly grounded and got their rigging entangled and a third ran hard aground and was ultimately burned by the British, rather than leaving it for South Carolinians.
Third, the soft, spongy palmetto trunks, reinforced only with earth, were found to be nearly impervious to the finest naval cannon fire of the day.
And fourth, the soon-to-be state of South Carolina had found an image to join the crescent moon on our flag and to grace our state seal, had identified our future state tree, and had earned a new nickname, the “Palmetto State.” The British withdrew with 220 dead or wounded compared to only 37 patriot casualties.
Besides history, what is interesting about our state tree? Well, it’s not really a tree. A botanist would say that, technically, the Sabal palmetto, of the family Arecaceae, is classified as an herb or grass. We needn’t be technical, though, and ecologists would say that this plant behaves as, and should be considered, a tree.
One Department of Agriculture fact sheet states that mature trees typically grow 40 to 50 feet and can reach heights of 90 feet in ideal conditions. That’s an awfully tall grass.
We weren’t alone in falling for it, either. The Sabal palmetto is also the state “tree” of Florida. Its native U.S. range is from the Gulf Coast to coastal North Carolina, but it has been planted and grown successfully farther up the East and West Coasts. Sabal palms can also be found on various islands in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
The trees are sometimes called “cabbage palms” due to the cabbage-like heart, which reportedly also tastes somewhat like artichoke hearts or cabbage. The Seminole and Choctaw Native Americans, among other tribes, ate these and used the seeds and berries for medicinal purposes. Unfortunately, removal of the heart ultimately kills the plants. The berries are a favorite food source of many birds and other animals as well. A plant guide published by the Natural Resources Conservation Service suggests that while available in the fall, these berries alone constitute between 10% and 25% of the total diet of both robins and raccoons in our area.
These “trees” are beautiful, highly hurricane (and cannon ball) resistant and thrive in the conditions found in the Lowcountry. If they are to be planted or moved, early summer is preferable, and one reason we see so many planted as larger trees is that the additional food reserves tend to better facilitate new root generation.
We have strong natural and historic ties to the Sabal (or cabbage) palmetto from both early native peoples and our own state history. Whenever I see our state flag I can’t help but think of the little fort on Sullivan’s Island that had such a big impact on our history.
As an aside, Benjamin Guerard, like so many, paid a very high price but was richly rewarded for helping establish our state and nation. He sent his first wife, Sarah Middleton, and their only son north to be safe from the fighting only to lose them in a shipwreck at sea.
Though Charleston survived its first major battle, it would fall later in the war. Guerard was captured and imprisoned both aboard the prison ship Pack Horse and later in a prison in Philadelphia. After the war ended, he returned to South Carolina, remarried and ultimately became the state’s fourth governor in 1783.