Just one plant: Sabal minor

by Tony Avent

illustration by Ippy Patterson

Certain plants, like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, never get the respect they deserve. A classic example is our native scrub palm, Sabal minor, also known as the dwarf or bush palmetto. Perhaps its ubiquitous nature as you drive south on I-95 is to blame, or perhaps it just looks too tropical to excite temperate native plant enthusiasts. Maybe we just need a catchy slogan like “Got Palms?” to encourage more folks to plant Sabal minor.

In any case, the Sabal minor has been here for a very long time.

In the mid-1990s, I was having soil excavated from a high spot on my property to build greenhouses when I nearly did a Michael Jordan-esque leap into the front end loader bucket: Petrified wood was interspersed throughout the dirt. It wasn’t just any petrified wood, which would have been exciting enough, but my haul included pieces of 90-million-year-old Sabal palms that grew right here on my property.  They looked just like the fossil Ippy Patterson drew here.

OK, so 90 million years was a long time ago, when we were in the midst of real global warming, but we also have old photos from the 1940s that show large populations of native scrub palm being cleared for agriculture less than an hour south of downtown Raleigh, near Dunn.Those who’ve studied such things tell me that even in recent history, the native Sabal minor grew as far north as coastal Virginia.

So, why should you grow Sabal minor in your garden? How many plants grow equally as well in sun or shade, in alkaline or acidic soils…in bogs or among cacti, and look great every month of the year? Very darn few!

Sabal minor makes a lovely evergreen specimen, eventually reaching five feet tall by nine feet wide, although both giant (10 feet tall) and dwarf (two feet tall) forms are both now available. Starting in early August, these scrub palms are adorned with eight- to ten-foot tall spikes of tiny white flowers that morph by Halloween into black fruit.

So, what’s the downside of growing Sabal minor? They require a bit of planning since they cannot be moved once established. Unlike other Southeast native palms, including the trunked Sabal Palmetto, which are moved like telephone poles, Sabal minor has what I call a dyslexic trunk, one that actually grows in reverse: Nearly six feet deep into the ground.

Because of this bizarre trait, however, Sabal minor acquires incredible winter hardiness. Sabal minor seeds are easy to grow when planted fresh, but if you don’t want a forest of seedlings popping up in your garden, remove the seed stalks before the seed drop in fall.

Visitors to many city of Raleigh parks will see nice established plantings of Sabal minor thanks to the foresight of retired city horticulturists Noel Weston and Alan Brunner.