Perhaps no tree is more beloved by South Carolinians than the Palmetto palm, whose ubiquitous image waves from our flag and adorns automobiles, apparel and an endless array of novelty items.
Sabel Palmetto is native to the lower South, growing in dry sandy soils along the coast or in open fields, and also cultivated as an ornamental and street tree. The large fan-shaped leaves grow directly from branchless single trunks. Old leaf bases called “boots” collect organic matter hospitable to orchids, ferns and mosses. The tree’s fruits, green berries that turn almost black, provide seeds and sweet flesh for wildlife.
This species is also known as the Cabbage Palmetto because once trees were felled to harvest the large leaf buds eaten in a cabbage-like salad. Palmetto palm trunks are used for docks and wharf pilings and, according to an Audubon Society field guide, “Brushes and whisk brooms are made from young leafstalk fibers, and baskets and hats from the leaf blades.”
So, how did this tall tree become the symbol of our state? During the American Revolution, there were fears the British would attack Charleston. Construction of a fort to protect the city began on Sullivan’s Island. It was built with double walls of stacked palmetto logs and sand in between. When 11 British ships arrived on June 28, 1776, to assault the unfinished structure, an easy victory was expected. Instead, as Dr. Walter Edgar recounted, “The fort’s construction rendered the heavy fire… ineffective as cannon balls either bounced off the spongy logs or buried themselves harmlessly in the sand.” The British withdrew in disarray.
One hero of the battle was Sgt. William Jasper, who bravely retrieved the militia’s fallen flag. Designed by Col. William Moultrie, it featured an indigo blue field to match the soldiers’ uniforms with a white crescent moon in the upper left hand corner representing the silver emblem on the front of their caps.
In 1861, as S.C. was withdrawing from the Union, the General Assembly decided a new flag was needed. The final choice altered the earlier pennant by centering a Palmetto tree beneath the crescent moon. For over 150 years our flag has honored the Palmetto tree’s role in saving S.C.
— Joanna Angle is a 30-year resident of Chester County and a Master Tree Farmer. She has previously directed the Olde English District Tourism Commission, produced and hosted “Palmetto Places” for SCETV and helped establish the Chester campus of York Technical College.