Heart of Palm and Controversy
The state tree of Florida isn’t a tree, but it is a weed of many edible parts.
The Sabal palmetto, actually an overgrown bundle of grass, is native to the southeastern US and West Bahamas Islands that produces many products.
At 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 really, 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.
Several 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.
Young leaves of the Sabal palmetto (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 away. 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 edibility.
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.
This “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.
Marion 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.
Now, what of the fruit and seeds, or kernels?
The 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.
I have 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.
Fiber 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 are woven to make coarse hats, mats and baskets. Fronds are also shipped around the world for Palm Sunday services. The boot fiber makes 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.
Keith 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, which means “down there.” Labas also is a word in Lithuanian that means good and is usually used in greeting. But I 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.
It 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 argentata) 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.
Lastly, 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.
Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile
IDENTIFICATION: 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.
ENVIRONMENT: Brackish marshes, seacoast, woodlands or hammocks and sandy soils near the coast and inland.
METHOD OF PREPARATON: Fresh fruit, ground seeds with or without pulp, growing end of 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.