Photo © Sally & Andy Wasowski | Lady Bird Johsnon Wildflower Center
You’ve seen the majestic palms that line many coastal towns around the world, but Texas has its own unusual version, the sabal palm.
Sabal texana, one of only two native palms, grew throughout the Rio Grande Valley long ago, getting noticed by Spanish explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda in the early 16th century.
He may have given the Rio Grande its first moniker, Río de las Palmas, in honor of those 40,000 acres of Texas sabal palms. These early sabal palms fell victim to heavy agricultural clearing.
Today, only a small portion of those palms remain in South Texas. To see them, visit thenear Brownsville, located on the site of a former sugar cane plantation at the southernmost tip of Texas. Where there are sabal palms, there are plentiful birds and butterflies, so this is a Rio Grande Valley park beloved by locals and travelers.
Each palm creates a micro-habitat of its own with birds, bats, lizards, snakes, wood rats, turkeys and more. The sanctuary provides breeding habitat for many endangered or high-priority birds, and is a critical source of shelter and food for migrating and wintering species.
The Texas sabal palm reaches up to 40-50 feet tall with a wide canopy. A slow growth rate means you can’t even see a trunk until the tree is at least 10 years old.
Fan-shaped leaves have 80-115 leaflets with characteristic threads unraveling along the margins. The Texas sabal palm can be distinguished from other palmate-leafed palms by its long, smooth, non-thorny leaf stalks and the long, downward-arching ribs.
White flowers bloom in spring, followed by clusters of dark purple fruits (drupes) that attract wildlife. Historically, people have used palm trunks as posts for huts and wharf pilings; leaves were woven into hats, baskets, mats, chair seats and roof thatching.
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