The dappled sunlight filtering through the trees on Camp Salmen’s Swampwalk shows why dwarf palmetto palms (Sabal minor) are the “radiant beauties” of the swamp. Their giant, green starburst-shaped leaves are scattered here and there in spiky clusters throughout our wetland woods.
The plant grows on slightly elevated ground in the swamp: low ridges deposited by flowing water, hummocks around trees and on top of old Indian campsites. Historically, both Native American and European travelers used the plant to identify higher, drier ground so they could find their way through the boggy landscape.
Choctaw and Cajuns found ways to use the tough, fibrous leaves of the palmetto in their everyday lives. They wove them with a bit of cane as a stiffener into baskets, trays and backpacks and even children’s dolls. They layered them on top of their huts and cabins to make a durable, weatherproof roof that was easily repaired or replaced. Hunters continue to use them today to conceal their blinds in marsh and woods. Parts of the plant were also known to have medicinal qualities.
Palmettos are slow growing evergreens found across the southeastern U.S. including many of Louisiana’s wet areas. I have seen them in their greatest concentrations carpeting the forest floor along miles of I-49 in the Red River bottomland. There is a small colony of a rare sub-variety in the LaBranche wetlands near the end of the Bonnett Carre Spillway that grows on eight-foot trunks. Most of those found at Camp Salmen are the standard variety that grows on one to three foot stems.
In the spring, they send up tall stalks topped with tiny white flowers. These turn into clusters of black berries at the end of the summer that are food for birds and mammals. We collect these and broadcast them under our Live Oaks. Look closely in the mulch for the little one and two-leaf starts that will some day grow to be big, beautiful green fans.