The spikey green fronds of the Palmetto trees clack together softly as they are nudged around by the gentle breeze. Palmettos, one of a multiple species of palm trees, are ubiquitous here in South Carolina. Around these parts, it is almost a sin not to have one, or two, somewhere on your property. After all, the Palmetto is the official tree of this deep south state, emblazoned on everything from license plates to key rings to jewelry to the state flag. Fourteen of them line the six-house cul-du-sac where I live, planted here by the developer of this planned community as if to hammer the point home; you are living in South Carolina now, son.
Sitting on my front porch in a Charleston Green rocking chair, which appears almost black, a morning cup of coffee in my hand, I study the Palmetto in front of me. By the way, the front porch is another southern custom. Almost every respectable home has one, many of them wrap-around. The cliché image of the Southern Gentleman rocking on his front porch, mint julep in hand, is really not all that exaggerated, except, maybe for the mint julep part. As a transplanted Yankee, I find myself thoroughly enjoying the hours I spend quietly rocking on the porch, reading or just surveying the neighborhood. The weather here is just about perfect for such an activity. I’m beginning to feel like a true Carolinian.
Anyway, about the Palmetto in front of me. Like most of the others, it stands ramrod straight, about forty feet tall. They can grow up to sixty-five feet in length. I was surprised to learn that that trees are not made of wood. They consist of a fibrous material that allows them, straight as they are, to bend and flex in the strong Carolina coastal winds that sometimes blow in off the ocean. Ironically, in this traditionally arch-conservative, historic slave state, that makes them a perfect metaphor for tolerance. If they bend, they won’t break.
About two-thirds the way up the tree, the skin or bark, if you will, of the tree peels away from the trunk like the peel of a banana. These pieces of “bark” stand out at angle making the appearance of the Palmetto trunk reminiscent of very large, very rough asparagus. Its green fronds, or leaflets, stand out from the top of the tree in the style of a punk-rock hairdo, all pointy and wild, extending in all directions. They are beautiful.
The Palmetto is extremely tolerant of salt air and sandy soil. That survival quality is part of the romantic history of the tree and why it has such an honored place in South Carolina culture. During the Revolutionary War, South Carolinians erected Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island just off the Charleston coast. They built the fort out of Palmetto trees. Their ability to withstand shock allowed the trees to absorb British cannonballs, or otherwise render them ineffective. Thus, the Palmetto is credited with causing a British naval attack on the island in June of 1776 to end in failure, thus saving Charleston from British occupation, at least temporarily. The Palmetto is considered a true war hero here in the Palmetto State.