Why Don’t They Remove the Brown Leaves on Sabal/Cabbage Palms?

Washingtonians with Skirts - mlm

Why do they leave those ugly dead brown leaves hanging down on some of the palms? And why those palms but not other types? Several people have asked me this. Many who are unfamiliar with tropical plants consider this to be messy and unsightly.  I have to admit, when we first moved here, I thought so, too. Since then, I have learned a lot about palms, and changed my opinion.

Those brown leaves hanging down like a grass skirt are called just that, skirts. The skirts are left for a good reason, and only on palmates, not on pinnates. Palmates (also know as “fan palms”) are called this because, like the palm of a hand, the leaves have a solid the center with “fingers” that extend from the center or base of the leaf.

A pinnate, on the other hand, has leaves that look more like the fronds of a fern. The Queen palm, the Sugar palm, the Mule, and the Sylvester, are perfect examples of pinnates. Below is an photo of a Queen palm taken on a very breezy day:

Queen Palm - mlm


Below are the leaves of a Washingtonian, an example of a palmate. The Cabbage palm, often called the sabal palm (probably because part of its latin name is “sabal”) is another palmate native to this part of central Florida, and many other parts of the U.S.

Palmate Palm Leaf - mlm 2

This Washingtonian is an example of a palmate’s large fan-like leaves.

The spent, fan-shaped leaves of the palmates hang down in layers over each other producing a perfect habitat for certain birds who make their nests inside. These birds eat mosquitoes. Please do not remove them from your palms unless, of course, your palm is so young and small that the skirts drag the ground, causing problems with mowing.

If you are having a problem mowing under the leaves of your palm, it is not properly mulched. This is because palms and trees* should be mulched out to the drip line. The drip line is the tip of the longest leaves or branches where water drips off onto the ground. Proper mulch for a palm is either pine needles or bark chips. Rocks should be kept a minimum of 3 feet away from the trunk of any palm, due to the shallow roots that are only 1 to 3 inches below the soil, and extend laterally about 50 feet. I will discuss this more in a blog post about the best mulches for use in the deep South with our shallow-rooted plants.

I know a lot of so-called landscapers around here install palms with those little concrete borders around the base of the plant. Almost all of them, especially the ones that encircle a single palm, are far too small, and too close to the plant.

Rocks & Soil Sloped Downward - mlm

The circle around this Sylvester was too small the day it was installed. That’s only one of three things wrong with this picture. Can you see the other two?


* That’s right, a palm is not a tree. Thought you had me there, didn’t you? Palms are classified as grasses, but that’s another topic for another blog post. Oh, yes, about the things wrong with that picture:  that’s for another post as well.







4 responses to “Why Don’t They Remove the Brown Leaves on Sabal/Cabbage Palms?

  1. Ever since we moved to palm tree country (San Francisco Bay area), I’ve wondered why some palm trees had skirts and some did not. Thank you so much for explaining that mystery.

    Now I’m curious which birds prefer to live in the skirts, so I’ll Google it in hopes of discovering whether we have a lot of mosquito-eating birds here too.

    In answer to your photo quiz: It seems the other two problems are 1) Rocks over the shallow roots (Is that because of the weight or the heat they would hold, or perhaps letting moisture drain through too quickly?); and 2) Mulch should be pine needles or bark chips. Wait. Maybe both those come under just “rocks.” In that case, I don’t know what the third problem with this photo is and await enlightenment. : )

    Thanks for an informative post. Even though I currently have nothing more than a windowsill garden, I love your gardening and landscaping tips.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The other 2 things wrong with the photo are 1) rocks should NEVER be used around plants or trees in the deep south. All plants here have very shallow roots, especially palms, azaleas, and all tropical plants. Rocks get very hot in the summer heat, and will actually bake the roots, causing gradual damage that will eventually kill the plant. My neighbor across the street had rocks around azaleas. They died, new azaleas were installed. They died, too. No more azaleas for that planting bed. 2) The ground around the palm in the photo is slopped away from the trunk of the plant, allowing water to run off before it has time to soak into the soil. The slope should be downward toward the plant, so that water is held there until it has time to be absorbed. Unfortunately, there are a lot of so-called landscapers here who don’t have the proper training to be installing expensive plants. It seems that, if they can handle a shovel, they are hired. Also, a lot of guys with a truck and a lawn mower call themselves landscapers. Grrrr.

      About the birds, I don’t know which birds. It would be interesting to know. If you have time, let me know what you learn. If I learn anything, I will let you know.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very educational post here. Thanks for sharing!


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