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Saw palmetto is a small palm that is native to the south-eastern United States.
It is recognisable by its fan-shaped leaves and creeping stems and is prized for its medicinal fruits.
Saw palmetto plants live for a long time with some estimated to be a whopping 500 – 700 years old.
A small palm with horizontal, ground or below ground-level stems and green, fan-shaped leaves comprising around 20 leaflets. The stalk that joins the leaf to the stem (petiole) has fine, sharp spines along the edges which give the species its name. The white flowers grow in dense clusters and the fleshy fruits are green, yellow and orange when unripe and bluish-black when ripe.
Saw palmetto is used for landscaping in south-eastern United States. It is popular given it is a native plant species and naturally fire, drought and insect resistant with little need for fertiliser.
Food and drink
Though distasteful, the fruit of saw palmetto have been eaten by humans, including the Indigenous peoples of Florida.
Extracts from saw palmetto fruits that are rich in important compounds like flavonoids, fatty acids, and sterols are found in some health food products.
Various parts of the saw palmetto plant are eaten by a wide variety of animals from raccoons and opossums to black bears and feral pigs. Some of these animals help to disperse the seeds in their faeces after having eaten the oil and carbohydrate-rich fruit.
Saw palmetto has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. The fruits are used in traditional remedies to relieve prostate gland swelling and associated urinary symptoms.
Materials and fuels
Many species of wildlife use saw palmetto for nesting and protective cover.
The endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) builds its nests in association with saw palmetto, and the Florida panther prefers this plant for both places to rest in the day and dens for giving birth to offspring.
The stems are often used for structural support for ground-nesting rodents such as the Florida woodrat (Neotoma floridana). Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) use saw palmetto as nesting cover, and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginiana) use it for cover to escape predators as well as bedding on windy, cold winter days.
Saw palmetto has adapted to fire. Its dead leaves are flammable and following burning, new leaf material appears within a week. It is thought that infrequent burning or burning outside the growing season contributed to this plant becoming denser across much of its growth range.
Now valued for its edible and medicinal fruits, saw palmetto was once seen as a pest. To the Europeans occupying the south-eastern region of the United States, it was an obstacle to converting the land for other uses such as growing crops, feeding livestock, or building a home. Since they are adapted to fire, mechanical equipment had to be especially designed to physically eradicate the palms.
Grows in the understory of flatwoods (low-lying pine woods) and sand pine scrub (shrubs and small trees). It also grows in clumps in sandy coastal areas.