Bermuda Palmetto (Sabal bermudana)
This endemic tree is found island-wide in upland and coastal forests and freshwater marsh habitats. It does well in most situations and habitats, except the most salty, and makes a nice garden tree. This is the only palm species indigenous to Bermuda; all others were introduced.
Bermuda Palmettos grow to 35 feet (10.5 m) high. The leaf stalk projects about halfway into the leaf in a V-shape which distinguishes it from the invasive Chinese Fan Palm. Also the leaf stalk of the Bermuda Palmetto never has spines or thorns. Bermuda Palmettos also have an attractive bright yellow patch around the stalk in the middle of the leaf. The dark green leaves are quite firm and hold up well in Bermuda’s windy weather.
Palmettos produce sprays of small yellowish white flowers in the spring. The fragrant flowers are pollinated by insects and mature into large clusters of fruit. These are round, bright green berries which become purplish black as they ripen in the autumn. Each berry contains a single large seed. The fleshy fruit of the Bermuda Palmetto provides food for a number of birds and other animals. The palmetto has a fibrous crown around the base of the leaves which provides habitat for insects and nesting material for birds.
Forests of Bermuda Palmetto once occurred in parts of Bermuda. Small surviving patches can be seen in nature reserves at Paget Marsh and the Butterfield Nature Reserve in Point Shares. Palmetto forests provided important habitat for other endemic plants such as Bermuda Sedge, Bermuda Spike Rush, Campylopus moss and other rare plants like the native Psilotum. There is evidence that palmetto forests and mixed palmetto/cedar forests have occurred on Bermuda for thousands of years. Fossilised palm fronds can be seen on cliff faces at several sites along the coast, and fossilised roots and the holes created by palmetto stumps can be seen in rock formations around the island.
The Bermuda Palmetto is culturally a very important tree to Bermudians and has been exceptionally useful throughout the island’s 400 year history. The fibrous leaves of the Palmetto were historically used to make baskets, hats, fans, roof thatch and rope. The fruit of the Palmetto was used to make an alcoholic beverage called Bibey.
Today Bermuda Palmettos are frequently propagated and are available from most plant nurseries. They have been widely planted in parks and nature reserves, as well as in gardens, on golf courses and as street trees.
In December 2016 the Bermuda Palmetto was placed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with Endangered status, due to the decline in the numbers of mature individuals in the wild and the threats to its habitat from development and invasive species.