From Eat the Weeds
and Other Things Too website
by Green Deane
The state tree of Florida isn’t a tree, but it
is a weed of many edible parts.
Sabal palmetto, actually an overgrown bundle of grass, is native to the
southeastern US and West Bahamas Islands that produces many products.
the top of the list is dark amber honey made from the palm’s
sweet edible flowers. It’s esteemed and pricey. Next is the
bittersweet thin fruit coating on the seeds, which are about the size
of a pea. The layer of fruit is extremely thin, a skin
but it does have a prune-like flavor. As for the seeds
themselves…That is a bit of debate:
Of all places, the US
Army Field Manuel on Survival (FM 3-05-70, dated 17 May 2002)
says the seeds can be ground up and used for flour. It is quoted on
several sites on the Internet and is the only source I know of that
specifically refers to the seeds themselves as edible.
authorities, Dr. Julia Morton among them, seem to agree the seeds are
edible but their language is always ambiguous. For example, Morton
writes: “the Indians reduced the dried fruit to a coarse meal
with which they made bread.”
The lack of detail in that
sentence is telling to anyone who has tried to reduce the dried fruit
to a coarse meal. That meal could or could not include kernels. Of
course, anyone who has “eaten” the fruit of the cabbage
palm knows there is almost no fruit at all, just a layer of edible
paint on a round flattened seed. It would be nearly impossible to get
enough “fruit” to make bread from it without using the
kernel. It makes sense that they ground up the entire fruit, it just is
not mentioned specifically by anyone other than in the US Army manual,
which I have a copy of.
Heart of Palm
Young leaves of the Sabal
(SAY-bul pal-MET-to) are also edible raw or cooked which leads to the
most controversial edible of all, the heart of the palm, the inner core
of the terminal bud. Taking it kills the tree, thus the controversy.
It’s called swamp cabbage and millionaire’s cabbage though
it doesn’t taste like cabbage at all. Raw it is similar to
cattail stalks, read it is mild and crunchy, artichoke-ish. Cooked it
tastes just like cooked asparagus to me. To get it I just go to places
where developers have permission to take down the trees and I get my
palm hearts that way. Once you have a tree you can do “heart
surgery.” Here’s how you do it:
Cut off the top
three feet below where the fronds are growing. Then cut off the top
foot of that three foot section The young fronds in the center of that
one foot piece are edible cooked but are tough. Now concentrate on the
lower two feet or so that you have left. To remove the heart, which is
the central core, the outer leaf stems are cut or pulled
The fronds have a woody base called a boot which wraps around the
trunk. They are shaped like upside down “Y’s”. The
“boots” are stripped from the section until the tender,
closely wrapped, central core is reached. The core is the swamp
cabbage. It’s cylindrical, creamy white, and composed of
leek-like layers of undeveloped boots (leaves really) with the texture
of regular cabbage, but a nutty flavor. Many foraging sources tell us
the lower pith that resembles a sponge is also edible. I have always
found it too bitter to eat, raw or cooked, so I cannot vouch for its
Swamp cabbage can be prepared in various ways. Edible
raw, the most popular Florida Cracker way is to cut it into thin slices
like cole slaw and cook with meat seasoning until done, turning it from
white to yellow brown. or gray-brown. When served raw in slices with
dates or guava it is Heart of Palm Salad. Incidentally, the natives did
not eat heart of palm until Europeans introduced metal axes.
“recipe” is from Wild Edibles by Marian Van Atta, whom I
knew in Rockledge, Florida, in the early 1980’s. Swamp Cabbage:
Cut hearts of palm fine or shred into fine pieces. Optional: Soak in
ice water for an hour. Slaw: Mix with mayonnaise and 1 or 2 teaspoons
pickle relish. Season to taste. That’s it, not much to it.
Van Atta was a rotund, slightly shorter than usual woman who always
wore a straw hat and what looked like homespun clothes. A blue
denim-like outfit was one of her favorite, judging by the number of
times I saw it. I worked on a small weekly paper at the time
— the Rockledge Reporter — and she would drop off her
weekly column “Living off the Land.” Though a forager she
leaned towards gardening and homemaking. She’s and my Florida
mentor, Dick Deuerling, did not always see eye to eye. He thought her
knowledge of trees was lacking.
Pulp is paint thin on hard seeds
Now, what of the fruit and seeds, or kernels?
kernel is extremely tough. You have three choices. Eat the thin pulp
off, which is prune-ish in flavor but also astringent, then use the
bare kernel. Or let the entire fruit dry as is with the pulp on it. You
can grind up the pulp and kernel to make a crude flour or you can grind
up just the kernel to make a crude flour. Either way it is a huge
amount of work. It definitely is more calories out than in. I
don’t know how Native Americans did this efficiently. Mill stones
would be my guess, or perhaps they sprouted the kernels.
obtained a coarse powder by tossing roasted kernels into an industrial
strength coffee grinder to break them up and then putting them through
a grain grinder. If you roast the pulp-less kernels at 350º F for
20 to 30 minutes they break up much easier and grind easily. The powder
has a nutty flavor and makes a passable coffee-like drink, especially
to the nose.
If ground raw crude cakes can be made from the pulp
and kernels with a little water and cooked. It’s roughage and
roughing it, and you might end up with brown goop I’ve
tried boiling them to no success. They remained as hard as rocks.
Roasting was easy but reduces the ground up kernel to an additive
rather than a flour.
Historically, the palms have had many uses.
The trunks are used for wharf pilings, brushes and brooms can be made
from young leaves. The Seminole Indians used the large fan-shaped
leaves to thatch their traditional buildings called chickees.
is obtained from the leaf stalks and is used to make brushes that
remain stiff in hot water or caustic materials. Parts of the bark has
been used for scrubbing brushes and the roots contain about 10 percent
tannin. The trunk is still used to make canes and the leaves
woven to make coarse hats, mats and baskets. Fronds are also shipped
around the world for Palm Sunday services. The boot fiber
excellent tinder and if one digs some dry tinder can usually be found
there even in the rain. And in case you need to know this, when the
wood is struck by cannon balls it bends but does not break or splinter.
Boyer, in his book, Palms and Cycads Beyond the Tropics, proposes that
the genus name is derived from the Latin for palmetto, that is,
“palmetto” comes from the Italian version of the original
Spanish for “little palm.” Sabal is anyone’s
guess but he suggests is it is a French anagram of La bas,
means “down there.” Labas also is a word in
Lithuanian that means good and is usually used in greeting.
think La bas and Labas are reaching. My guess is “sabal” it
is from the sound alike sable, as in the fur, which was sabel in Middle
German, zobel in Old German, and sobol in Slav and Polish for
“black” like the color of the berries. That seems more
sensible to me than an anagram for a bit of awkward French.
is not without surprise that the palm also provides a substantial part
of the diet of many animals including deer, bear, raccoon, squirrel,
bobwhite, and wild turkey. And while the S. palmetto
may not make up much of the human diet, palms themselves are the third
most important crop for humans. Cabbage Palms also like their feet dry
so in swamps and other wet areas they are a signal for higher, dryer
ground. Look for them when slogging through swamps. Also, the Silver
Palm (aka Florida Silver Palm, Coccothrinax
also has edible fruit, not too appealing, and the terminal bud is also
edible. It is a fan palm, dark blue green above, silver below.
is the tree protected? I was certainly taught that over 30 years ago,
and have read so many times. I think I also said so in my video. But it
was recentlhy brought to my attention that it might not be so. And
indeed, I can not find a state wide law protecting though I did find
some local ordinances that protect the tree. In fact, the law that made
it a state tree in 1953 specifically said its designation shall not
prevent it from being harvested and used. If anyone knows of a state
law that says otherwise, please let me know.
“Itemized” Plant Profile
Tree up to 60 ft. tall, long spreading leaves to 9 feet, yellow-white
flowers in many branched clusters; fragrant, fruit 1/4″ wide.
Ends of the fan fronds are folded in half vertically.
Time of Year:
Evergreen, fruits in summer to fall.
Brackish marshes, seacoast, woodlands or hammocks and sandy soils near
the coast and inland.
Fresh fruit, ground seeds with or without pulp, growing end
young leaves, the heart. Roasted pulpless kernels have a nutty, if not
coffee taste when ground. There is sugar in the fronds but it has to be
beaten and soaked out. Incidentally, if the palm’s top is cocked,
going off at an odd angle, or it is recently deceased, look for
Palmetto Weevil grubs, about an inch long, edible raw or cooked. Burned
stalks can yield an ash that tastes salty.
Disclaimer from Green Deane
Information contained on this website is strictly and
categorically intended as a reference to be used in conjunction with
experts in your area. Foraging should never begin without the guidance
and approval of a local plant specialist. The providers of this website
accept no liability for the use or misuse of information contained in
Edible Palms Page