Often overlooked as a landscaping choice when visiting your local nursery, the Dwarf Palmetto is a complex native palm of Louisiana that deserves a closer look. Able to grow in even the poorest soil conditions, this palmetto, Sabal minor, thrives in the heat and humidity and is even hardy enough to survive the chilly winters of southeastern Louisiana. A mere glance around wooded or marshy areas, especially where land meets water, will reveal a trove of lush palmettos, flourishing everywhere.
Once the palmetto establishes itself in the soil, the trunk grows underground, making it difficult to transplant the mature plants. The seeds are thankfully easy to obtain, though, growing on stalks from the center of the plants in late spring and summer. Striking in the wild, Dwarf Palmettos make a magnificent addition to manmade landscapes, as well.
The Dwarf Palmetto (found naturally around cypress and oak trees) can easily acclimate to such a landscape if placed around the base of its natural neighbors. The smooth, forest green leaves, which stand out against the grays and browns of the tree trunks, appear as though they were spray-painted, the color is so vivid. Additionally, the fan-shaped fronds, formed by the long, pointed leaves, add an extra layer of depth and texture to the landscape.
In the spring, long stalks, often up to ten feet tall, grow from the center of the plants, bearing small, cream-colored flowers. The flowers then give way to black fruits, about a half inch in diameter, with a single seed. In the wild, black bears and raccoons still depend on the wild seeds as a food source and, as a result, are dispensers of the seeds, insuring continued propagation.
Historically, the Dwarf Palmetto played an important role in the lives of Louisiana natives and French colonists. The Choctaw, Chitimacha, and Houma Indian tribes used the palmetto fronds as roof thatching for their huts, with European settlers often following suit. Starting at the edge of the roof, the fronds were placed in rows, one atop the other, moving up toward the peak of the roof. In so doing, the fronds formed a durable roof that worked well to shed rainwater. Occasionally, palmetto fronds would comprise the exterior walls in the same manner, layered from top to bottom, forming a rainproof wall covering as well as insulation.
Native American tribes were known for using the Dwarf Palm for medicine and food, too. The Houma sliced the roots and baked them like a type of bread. They also used the dried roots in a decoction for the treatment of high blood pressure and kidney and urinary problems. Not to be confused with the Dwarf Palmetto, Saw Palmetto extract is used today to combat prostate problems. Even though Saw Palmettos can be found in Louisiana, they are not as common as the Dwarf Palmetto and can be distinguished by the small sharp spines which form saw-like edges and give the saw palmetto its name.
The Louisiana natives developed other ways to utilize this versatile native plant, like in basket weaving, a tradition that continues today. Weavers cut the center stalk of the plant, called the “heart,” from the living plant and hang them upside down to dry. After several weeks, the dark green fades to a light color as the stalk dries out. Once completely dry, the stalk can then be separated into long, thin strips, which are soaked in water to make them pliable before being woven together to make hats and baskets.
The Houma continue the tradition of palmetto weaving in Louisiana, making hats, placemats, and baskets to sell at festivals and open marketplaces. The easiest and most common weave is the flat-braid weave used to make hats, placemats, and fans. The more intricate half-hitch weave is used to make beautiful, sturdy baskets, taking days to complete. Samples of the Houma crafts can be found at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and at local museums in Lafayette, Houma, and Natchitoches.
Ubiquitous in the Louisiana landscape, the Dwarf Palmetto is often taken for granted and vilified as a common nuisance. Considering its usefulness, beauty, and availability, this robust palm should be appreciated not only as an element of a fertile landscape but as a viable part of our state history.
To see more samples of Houma crafts made with Dwarf Palmetto, visit louisianafolklife.org and search for “Houma basket weavers.”
(This piece originally appeared in Country Roads Magazine and is republished here by agreement.)
I hope you enjoyed learning about just one more useful indigenous plant down here in bayou country!