If there ever was a tree of life it would or should be the Sabal Palm. It has provided humans with food, shelter, and fiber for thousands of years. The breeze ruffling through its broad leaves provides serenity. The sound has lulled many a Florida cowboy, hunter and camper to sleep under the glorious shade it provides. A cross section of the woody portion of the leaf looks like a softly rounded pyramid. The tree provided hours of entertainment for me and the kids I grew up with. We all had pocket knives. Dry or green the woody portions of the leaves were easily carved into darts, arrows, spears, wind mills, helicopters, fishing lures, marshmallow and hot dog grilling sticks. Street vendors can now be found selling elaborate weaving of the leaves turned into art. The trees were everywhere. The trunks have been turned into pilings, support posts for some of the gracious porches that wrap around old ‘Cracker’ houses in the interior of Florida as well as along the coast. Most have been replaced over the years, first by heart pine, then pressure treated timber. The logs are also effective in repelling cannon balls. Fort Moultrie (Fort Sullivan then), built to protect Charleston Harbor during the Revolution, came under attack June 1776 by British war ships. The palm logs remained impervious to the bombardment by ships and, by the end of the day, the British ships, heavily damaged, limped off. Four hundred patriots and palm logs handed the British a stinging defeat and set the tone for the rest of the Revolution. The event is still celebrated as ‘Carolina Day’. The name of the fort was changed to honor Commander William Moultrie who led his band of patriots to victory. The ground underneath is still called Sullivan’s Island.
Perhaps the victory at Sullivan’s Island is why South Carolinians don’t eat Sabal Palm trees. I spent a year working and hanging out in Lexington County SC. I took many forays to the Low Country. I was hard pressed to find any evidence of anyone eating a palm tree. Without doubt the heart of palm surely graces some of the tables of the famous eateries clustered in and around Charleston. I never bothered to check the rules because I never encountered a single native that had ever partaken.
The Sabal Palm is the state tree of both South Carolina and Florida. When you drive across the southern border of South Carolina heading north on I-95 the welcoming signage is landscaped with the Sabal Palm. A silhouette of the tree is a symbol of South Carolina. It appears on their state flag. The epic rivalry football game between Clemson University and the University of South Carolina is affectionately known as the Palmetto Bowl. Florida is a little more flamboyant with their use of the trees owing in part to the vast numbers of them that are found here. They can be seen everywhere as part of the landscape along all the major roadways. They are native to Florida and the coastal areas from North Carolina to Texas.
The tree itself looks very different during different stages of its life cycle. The trunks grow according to external forces. Wind, hurricanes, and shifting soil have all have played a role in some of the odd shapes of these trees. Collapsing river banks give us the semi submerged postcard views. Most of them grow arrow straight. As they grow the leaves die and eventually break away and leave a woven pattern of spiky remnants called boots. They make excellent short lasting fires for brewing a pot of coffee or grilling a piece of meat in the field. As they get taller the boots fall away leaving the bare trunk characteristic look of a palm that most people are accustomed to.
Floridians, at least multigenerational Floridians, are the only people I know that routinely eat their state tree. While I couldn’t find anyone in South Carolina that would admit to eating their state tree, I like to imagine a secretive group of South Carolina gastronomes gathering far up some black river in secret to dine by firelight on this delicacy. Since I never met a tree eater in South Carolina I never bothered to check the rules in South Carolina. Eating the state tree there just smacks of an expensive wildlife or conservation violation citation.
Swamp cabbage means something to multigenerational Floridians. These days it is largely reserved for special occasions. Great get togethers where food is cooked outside over coals, a fish fry, a wedding, or a holiday where big families get together to celebrate. I drove 3 hours to surprise my kids on Christmas day. The second motivator was the chance to throw down at a Chandler family get together on the edge of an oak hammock in Bassinger Florida. On the menu was swamp cabbage, oak wood grilled ribs, sausage, steak and dozens of desserts and covered dishes.
Swamp cabbage is the terminal bud of a Sabal Palm tree. If you want to see how they are harvested there are dozens of YouTube films and photographs that illustrate the process nicely. Beware though, much of what you will find on the internet isn’t swamp cabbage at all. Understand that swamp cabbage come from the heart of the Sabal Palm. Canned palm hearts aren’t swamp cabbage, the hearts of other palms though edible aren’t swamp cabbage. This matters if you are a purest.
Harvesting this delicacy is not a sustainable activity these days. Most of them come from trees that have gotten in the way of other activities. These days landscapers remove them and sell them. People that are fortunate enough to have large tracts of land such as a cattle ranch may gain access to harvest a few. Land clearing activities can at times make them available. Stories abound of Florida families harvesting more than 500 of these swamp cabbages a day for food and to sell. The entire family working from daylight to dark earning a few cents apiece for each bud. The trees themselves have been carted off by the hundreds of thousands to landscape theme parks, golf courses, subdivisions and highways in Florida. Recognizing this, the State of Florida made it illegal to harvest a tree for any purpose on state land. The harvesting kills the tree. If 20 million Floridians decided they were going to take a swamp cabbage this weekend you can imagine the decimation.
The process these days involves a chain saw. Some people still cut them with axes. Either method is labor intensive and results in a zero or negative calorie net gain. Cutting a cabbage with an ax has resulted in horrific injuries because like cannon balls axes especially dull ones, can bounce off or worse, slide off or ricochet off the tree into a shin bone or foot. Old timers have long used a ‘cabbage’ ax. The cabbage ax is typically made from the curved dish shape of a disk harrow that has been attached to a handle and carefully ground to a sharp edge. The curved blade bites into the tree easily and doesn’t slip.
I mentioned earlier that there are plenty of videos and photos on the web if you want the details of the harvest. The important thing here is the food gained for the effort. Once you have your bud, you will eventually work it down to the pure white center tasting it as you go until you get to the sweetest part. Slice this off into a pot of water to help keep it from oxidizing and turning dark. Drain this and fry out a piece or 2 of smoky bacon, add your drained cabbage, some salt, a little water (until it barely floats) and stew it. Some people add sugar. There are dozens of variations.
For a first hand experience stop by the upcoming Swamp Cabbage Festival at LaBelle Florida and sample this fresh treat first hand.
You can also enjoy this treat at the only known restaurant in Florida that still regularly serves it. The Lighthouse Restaurant in Fanning Springs Florida. Call ahead, ask for Jamie the owner. 352-463-7771