Palmetto State is one of those handy appellations, like Granite State for New Hampshire, used by commentators tired of saying South Carolina over and over.
So the name palmetto is being repeated many times before the primary election on Saturday, often by people who wouldn’t know a palmetto from a dahlia.
But the palmetto (Sabal palmetto), the most common tree in the coastal plain of the Southeast, is worth knowing. It has qualities -- flexibility, adaptability, tolerance -- that the candidates in the Republican primary would do well to cultivate.
Andrew Henderson, a scientist at the New York Botanical Garden and the author of “Evolution and Ecology of Palms,” calls palmettos “rugged, sturdy beasts.” He notes that they’re the first plants to come back in deforested parts of Haiti.
These palms thrive in sandy, nutrient-poor soil and stand up to salt spray and wind. That tree you see whipping around in the background behind the reporter covering a hurricane is almost always a palmetto.
Of the 2,800 palm species, it is not the most beautiful -- it’s not as elegant as the towering Mauritia flexuousa, let alone the lissome Euterpe precaetoria. But its arching mega leaves, up to 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, produce much oxygen, and its roots brace the coastal soil. The palmetto’s soft core even provides food in the form of hearts of palm.
Although it is the state tree of South Carolina, the palmetto is not strictly a tree. Like all palms, it’s a monocot, with a main structure more like a thick stem than a trunk. Palms don’t add rings; an oak tree trunk gets wider and wider, while palms start out thick.
Sometimes plants seem not only unimportant but also invisible to us. Show people a jungle scene with trees, vines, bushes, flowering plants and one monkey, then ask them what it‘s a picture of, and they will say: It’s a picture of a monkey. Show Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney beside a palmetto, and people will say: It’s a picture of Santorum or Romney.
Yet the palmetto played an important part in U.S. history. It became South Carolina’s state tree, or more precisely its monocot, to commemorate a battle in the American Revolutionary War, in which a fort built of Palmetto logs on Sullivan’s Island proved impervious to assault. Cannonballs fired from British ships simply sank into the soft wood.
The palmettos Romney and the other Republican candidates may notice in South Carolina this week and soon in Florida are the product of at least 60 million years of natural selection. They are, in other words, at least 59 million years older than Homo sapiens.
For anyone who thinks our presidential selection progress lasts too long, this provides some perspective. The palmetto in its current form is a winner in that very long, slow election process, evolution.
(Constance Casey, a former New York City Parks Department gardener, is a contributing editor at Landscape Architecture magazine. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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