Sabal Palmetto “Lisa”- The Silver Anniversary of a Love Story
August 22, 2022
By Karen Maxwell, Horticultural Specialist
Did you know that cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto) grow in the South Pacific? Until about 10 years ago, neither did I. Then one lazy afternoon, I was watching the 1948 musical “On an Island With You,” featuring swimmer Esther Williams who portrays a movie star filming on location on a South Pacific island. Now with my horticultural experience focused on Southwest Florida, I should have been suspicious when Esther was shown swimming amongst bald cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss. Perhaps I was too scared for her, imagining the other things that naturally swim in bald cypress swamps to recognize that these are only native to the southeastern United States. It didn’t dawn on me to doubt my eyes until I caught a glimpse of our state tree, the cabbage palm, growing in the background scenes. This made me wonder. Always curious about plant origins, I decided to read up on our cabbage palm to see if it actually grows on any Pacific islands.
Of course, it can grow. But the important question that I was unconsciously asking myself, was the extent of its native origins. Cabbage palms, like many plants and trees do grow well outside of their native origins as I discovered in my research, but they are only endemic or naturally occurring to the Southeastern U.S.
Researching from the comfort of my couch, computer on my lap, movie running, the first article to pop up regarding Sabal palmetto was on Wikipedia. (Okay, groan, but it’s an easy place to start). Skimming most of the article, I perused the footnotes where “A new cultivar of Sabal palmetto in Fort Myers” prompted an immediate click through. And as for that film? It was shot on location alright – at Cypress Gardens in Florida!
During the spring of 1998, in the location we now know as I-75, exit 139 or Luckett Road in Fort Myers, a curious grouping of palms prompted a call to Robert Riefer. There, among the feral palms, stood some unusual looking specimens. Were they deformed? Or perhaps they were some sort of mutation. Either way, they were about to be bull-dozed by work crews. Some of you may recall that Robert of the University of Florida/IFAS is currently working with Edison Ford as we establish a collection of endangered native Florida orchids.
Robert rushed to the site to see a palm that looked a lot like a cabbage palm, only different! There, three palms stood – each probably close to 50 years old, two with “boots” as many cabbage palms have, and one without boots, but all three had fronds that appeared as if the leaves had not quite fully opened, and were quite stiff, unlike the way a cabbage palm frond freely falls. Robert was able to convince officials to save two of the palms, one with and one without boots and sadly, the third fell victim to the bulldozer.
The year prior, Robert’s wife of five years, Lisa, who is legally blind, had obtained her Florida horticulture certificate from The Center for Visually Impaired, in Daytona. A requirement of earning her certificate included demonstrating her ability to transplant cactus! Armed with her new certificate, she accepted a position at a Big Box Store; however, it turned out to be short lived and as she stayed home, contemplating her future, she fell into a deep depression as her husband Robert sadly watched. Realizing he needed to act, Robert thought back to that unusual palm tree – maybe, with Lisa’s help and horticultural training, they could try to propagate this unusual palm and re-populate it throughout Florida! In addition to the original three trees discovered at Luckett, there was one other tree, located on private property, nearly 100 miles away in Tampa. As luck would have it, that lone tree was seeding and Robert collected fistfuls of Sabal palmetto seeds from this unusual specimen.
In their tidy backyard, located on a ½ acre lot, Robert along with Lisa, set about planting 400 nursery pots of the newly acquired seeds along with maintaining detailed records of their growth progress. Over the course of several years, Lisa personally moved 40 cubic yards of potting material and together they raised more than 6,000 seedlings, selling or donating every last one. Cabbage palm seeds germinate easily, but they are very, very slow to grow; only growing approximately six inches per year. Because of the slow growth, it took the Riefers a number of years before they were able to definitively identify 68% of the seedlings; ones that were indeed exhibiting the unusual morphology of the rare Sabal palmetto.
With the assistance of Dr. Scott Zona, former Palm Biologist at Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Coral Gables and Co-Editor of the International Society of Palms newsletter “PALMS,” as well as the distinguished co-author of at least two encyclopedias on palms, the pair of palms isolated by Riefer were officially identified (Vol. 49-1 – IPS PALMS – March 2005) as a cultivar of the Sabal palmetto and furthermore, indigenous to Fort Myers! It was not a mutation, such as the double-crowned cabbage palms that result from a predatory action on the apical meristem of a young tree; nor was it a distinct species. As of this writing, to the best of our knowledge, DNA testing has never been done on S. palmetto Lisa.
Raise your hand if you took Biology in high school – if so, you may recall something called “Mendelian Genetics.” In my most elementary effort to explain: offspring inherit the complete gene set from both parents – which may include a mixture of dominant genes and recessive genes – such as brown (dominant) and blue (recessive) genes which determine eye color in humans. With only one brown eye gene, which is dominant, the offspring will have brown eyes. However, since the gene for blue eyes is recessive, the offspring must have both recessive genes of blue in order to have blue eyes. This is the case with this sabal palm – it is a recessive gene, and so all seeds from it do not result in offspring exhibiting the same characteristics of a stiff, not quite open frond known as a shallow sinus, as seen in the comparison photos.
For recognizing this new plant, Robert received the honor of naming it, and today, Sabal palmetto “Lisa” is no longer simply a footnote on the Wikipedia Sabal palmetto page. As of March 2005, it is now an accepted cultivar of Sabal palmetto.
The two trees originally researched by Robert and Dr. Zona can be seen today, standing side by side within the palm collection owned by the City of Fort Myers, known as Bennett-Hart Park at 2330 Martin Luther King Boulevard. Sabal palmetto Lisa has been saved thanks to Robert and Lisa’s extraordinary efforts and next spring marks the 25th anniversary of its discovery. It is now in healthy distribution around Florida and Edison Ford is fortunate to have two young Sabal palmetto Lisas in cultivation.
True to the characteristics of all Sabal palms, these palms transplant much easier when they are mature, than when they are young. This is important to know because mature S. palmetto Lisas are still not readily available to the public. Fortunately, many palm growers have now procured seed and are propagating this collectible palm. As a purchaser, be sure to only buy a S. palmetto Lisa that is at least four to five years old and exhibiting the tell-tale fronds and take great care when planting.
As far as we know, the Riefers conducted the only documented large scale trial of Sabal palmetto Lisa in an effort to determine the incident rate of the new cultivar from seed. While that trial produced a 68% success rate, year over year, that rate may change based on pollinator activity and weather factors. Despite all their efforts and personal expense to identify, save and propagate Sabal palmetto Lisa, today the Riefers do not have one of their own!
We have heard reports of young seedlings going into shock and sudden death. The most probable explanation for this is two-fold, according to Robert: a.) failure to provide adequate water with the newly transplanted palm known as transplant shock and b.) possible absence of compatible mycorrhizae from its indigenous location. Joyfully, if successfully acclimated to a new location, an owner can expect this palm to survive between 50 and 100 years, because as hearty native palms they naturally do extremely well in hurricanes.
Like all palms, (unlike the rings of hardwood trees) dating Sabal palmettos is a best guess based on its optimal growth rate of approximately 6” per year. The next time you stroll the grounds at Edison Ford, take a closer look at some of those really tall Sabal palmettos and do a rough calculation of their potential age!
In celebration of 25 years since it’s discovery, and in honor of the exhaustive work done by the Riefers, they would welcome a donation of a Sabal palmetto Lisa to be planted in Lehigh Acres at the welcome sign located at the Homestead Road and Lee Boulevard intersection as a permanent gift to the people of their hometown. Please contact me for further information at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in helping.
This month, be on the Lookout as the hot humid and rainy days of August bring forth exotic blooms of our ginger collection! Don’t miss them!