What Do You Mean, Palms Are Not Trees?

Cabbage Palm, a.k.a., cabbage palmetto, swamp cabbage, blue palmetto, Carolina palmetto, sabal palm, etc.

Cabbage Palm, a.k.a., cabbage palmetto, swamp cabbage, blue palmetto, Carolina palmetto, sabal palm, etc.

We frequently call them palm trees, but palms are actually related to grasses. Yep. That’s right. Grass. It all has to do with the way their circulatory systems work — with how they take up water. They do it the way grasses do it, not the way trees do it.  That means Florida’s state tree (the Cabbage Palm, i.e., Sabal palmetto) is not a tree at all.

Baby Cabbage Palm

Here’s a photo of a cabbage (sabal) palm (Florida’s state “tree”) when it first emerges from the ground. It’s just a very stiff fan-folded grass, about 6 inches tall. Occasionally, it will emerge as a single blade about 1/2 inch wide.


More Differences Between Palms and Trees:

Bark:   Trees have bark.  Palms do not.

Trees are self-healing. Palms are not:   For example, if a limb is cut from a tree, or if a tree trunk sustains a wound, it can heal itself.  A palm cannot. A wound to the trunk of a palm can be fatal, but often leads to a very long, slow death, so you may not realize your palm is dying until it is almost dead.

Trees Have Deep Roots. Trees have many lateral roots, and most trees also have a tap root that goes very deep. Some trees’ root systems can be almost as large as the trees themselves. Not so with palms.

Palms Have Extremely Shallow Roots:

Roots Exposed

This photo is of the roots of a Queen Palm that I accidentally exposed while planting flowers. This palm is approximately ten years old. As you can see, the roots are quite small, with the larger ones being about the thickness your little finger, and the others being more hair-like.

The pine straw mulch in the foreground, gives you an idea just how shallow these roots were — they were barely underneath the soil. For this reason, it is best not to spray grass and weed killer near your palms. Although palm roots are so very shallow, they can extend laterally up to 50 feet.

Palm Against Stormy Sunset - mlm

A Queen Palm in our front yard on a stormy summer evening.

Some of my neighbors have expressed concerns about the palm roots in these very small yards extending underneath driveways, and creating problems. While digging that same day, I found one long root that had touched the concrete of our driveway. Instead of going deeper to get underneath, it had made a 90-degree turn to run along beside the driveway.  Of course, there can always be exceptions, but from the looks of it, I don’t believe these very small roots can break concrete.

If You Remove the Top of a Tree — It Will Grow Back.  Remove the Top of a Palm — It Will Die:   Most everyone knows if the top of a tree is removed by severe pruning or by inclement weather, the tree will gradually heal, and will branch out at the point of the cut. If the top of a palm is removed, thus removing the terminal leaf bud, the palm will die.

Trying to “Do Better”:

We bought 3 Queens, 4 Cabbage, one Sylvester, and 2 Dwarf Sugar palms within a few months of relocating here. I truly wish I had attended at least one of the free palm clinics offered by the local master gardeners’ program. With the information I have now, we would have bought different types of palms, and would have known sooner how to care for them properly.

I once heard Oprah say something along these lines:  “You did what you knew how to do. When you knew better, you did better.” I hope I quoted her correctly. So, after attending 3 palm clinics, and learning more each time, I am taking better care of our palms, and trying hard to train myself to call them “palms”, not “palm trees”. Wish me luck.

Sugar Palm 1 - mlm

This photo was taken 2 years ago when these Dwarf Sugar Palms were planted to hide the utility boxes at the rear corner of our yard. They have now filled in nicely & serve a dual purpose of providing privacy for us.

Stay tuned. Lots more information on palms is coming.

5 responses to “What Do You Mean, Palms Are Not Trees?

  1. I never knew palms were not trees. So very interesting.


    • I didn’t either until attending one of the palm clinics offered here by the local master gardeners. I had planned to take the master gardener course over the winter, but was sick for so long that I missed it. There will be another class beginning in the fall. I hope to be accepted into that one. Thanks so much for reading my blog posts. I really appreciate it, Mickie.


  2. melrootsnwrites

    Count me among the clueless. I always thought they were trees. I learned a lot about the difference from this article. I think the next time I walk by the neighbor’s palms I will look at them differently.


  3. Pingback: Can You Guess What This Is? | In the Garden with Maria

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