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South Carolina is the ‘Palmetto’ state in honor of the cabbage palm or sabal palmetto. This trunk-forming palm is native to coastal regions as far north as Bald Head Island, but it does pretty well all the way up to Onslow and Carteret counties in the ‘Tarheel’ state.
The techniques necessary to successfully transplant a sabal palmetto are similar in some ways to what we try to do with typical trees and shrubs, but vastly different in others.
Because of their slow growth rate, sabal palmettos are usually harvested from native populations. You’ve probably seen trucks hauling trees with virtually no root ball or foliage. Even though it may seem a little strange, the research shows doing the “hurricane cut” (removing the leaves) is the best way to keep your new palms alive.
Sabal palmetto is one of the palms whose roots branch very little. All new roots formed must come from the trunk, so large root balls are of no value.
Like other plants, the greatest loss of water in newly planted palms is from transpiration through the leaves. Research in Florida has shown survival rates increased by about 30 percent when all the foliage was removed at planting compared with removing all but the top one-third. That’s great for the palms but may be a little difficult for the humans to pay for a trunk and no leaves.
Other than lack of foliage and non-existent root ball, transplanting a sabal palmetto is pretty much like every other plant. It’s very important not to plant too deeply, so plant your new palm at the same depth as it was growing before. Some folks plant at different heights to keep the trunk height uniform in a planting. If your ultimate goal is to kill the plants, this is an excellent way to accomplish that. Once you have about one-half of the backfill soil in, water to settle any air pockets. When the added water has soaked into the soil, add the rest of the soil and water again.
One practice that isn’t supported by any research but is commonly done is to water the newly planted palm at the top where the new fronds form. You may notice elaborate piping systems set up to deliver the water high in the canopy. Keeping the soil evenly moist with regular watering is important, but this top watering usually leads to more problems than it solves.
Don’t expect lots of new frond growth during the first growing season. It’s best to let the cabbage palm expend its energy growing roots. When new foliage emerges, two to three applications per season of a “palm special” fertilizer will get it growing.
If you’re thinking about adding some sabal palmettos to your landscape, keep in mind that it’s getting a little late. The best time to transplant is in spring to early summer when the soils have warmed but there is plenty of hot summer ahead. That doesn’t mean you can’t have success at other times of the year, but transplanting is riskier.