Saw palmetto

Serenoa repens
Family: Arecaceae

Natural History
Saw palmetto leaves and fruit
Photo credit: SFRC, University of Florida

Saw palmetto gets its common name from the two rows of teeth that appear along the petiole of each leaf. The teeth are tiny but very sharp, and they can cut just like the blade of a saw when something is pulled across them. If you make the mistake of walking through a field of saw palmetto in shorts, you'll likely end up with a number of long, thin cuts along your legs.

Saw palmetto grows on a wide variety of sites, from dry and open to seasonally wet and semi-shady. Across this wide range of habitats, it most frequently occurs on sand ridges, flatwood forests, coastal dunes, and islands near marshes. Saw palmetto is the dominant ground cover in some southeastern pine forests, sometimes covering hundreds of acres. Saw palmetto often grows in clumps 20' or more in diameter.

Saw palmetto is found in most of the southeast coastal plain, between Louisiana and Florida in the south, to South Carolina in the north.

Black bears, white-tailed deer, and feral hogs eat the fruits of saw palmetto. Native Americans also used the fruits for food. The fruits are collected today for herbal medicines that may help prevent certain forms of cancer. The flowers are an important source of honey and clumps of palmetto are often favorite hiding places of rattlesnakes, wasps, and the Florida panther.

Saw palmetto may be confused with dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) because of their similar sizes and leaf shapes. Dwarf palmetto has blue-green leaves, has no spines on the leaf stems, and the circular fruits are about ½" in diameter.


 

Identifying Characteristics

Habitat: It is found on sites ranging from seaside sand dunes and dry scrub to pinelands, hammocks, moist forests, and wetlands.
Size/Form: Saw palmetto is a branched, hardy, fan palm that measures two to nine feet tall. Its stem usually remains below ground or runs horizontally along the surface. In some cases, it develops an upright or arching stem.
Stem: The stem is horizontal above or just below the ground, frequently branched, and sometimes has an upright or leaning portion.
Leaves: The leaves spiral around the stem. The blades are circular in outline and are usually 2' to 3' across, with the outer edge dividing into many dagger-shaped segments. The petioles are about 2' to 3' long and sharply saw-toothed.
Fruit: The fruit is ovoid and drupe-like, ½" wide, and ripens from green to black on a branched cluster shorter than the leaves.

 

Images

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Flowers in a partial inflorescence. A complete (compound) inflorescence. Pine flatwoods with saw palmetto. Leaf blade.
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida
     
Fruits.      
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida      

 

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