Sabal mexicana

Mexican palmetto


Sabal mexicana

Mart. 1839

pronounced: SAY-bal mex-ih-KAH-nuh

(Arecaceae — the palm family)


common names: Mexican palmetto, Texan palmetto, Texan sabal palm

The derivation of Sabal is unknown; mexicana is botanical Latin for ‘of or from Mexico’. The palm is a native of the southern part of Texas, both the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Its natural habitat is the rich soil of coastal bottom lands.

The Mexican Palmetto, in common with the other Sabal palms, has a “saxophone style” root growth. The root of the seedling initially grows more or less vertically downwards to a depth of about 20 cm, and then turns through an angle of almost 180º and then works its way upwards again, forming a curve rather like that below the bell of the saxophone.

This is a stately robust palm that can grow up to about 15 m tall with a solitary trunk that can be up to 80 cm in diameter, and the spread can be anything from about 2.5 m up to almost 8 m. The trunk is grey, and has closely spaced annular rings. At least part of the trunk usually remains covered with old leaf stem boots that often split at their base. They form a characteristic crosshatch pattern on the trunk.

The petioles of the fronds are smooth, completely without thorns, and can grow up to almost 4.5 m long. The palm has 10 - 25 fronds. These range in colour from a deep emerald green where the palms grow in part shade, to a much lighter green when the leaves receive more sunlight. Each frond has a hundred or so leaflets with threads along the margins. The costa is prominent, and arches strongly downwards, giving the leaves a folded 3-D effect.

These monoecious palms begin to flower while still quite young. The inflorescence can be as long as the leaves, and the flowers are small and white.

The fruit, about 1.5 cm in diameter, slightly larger than that of Sabal palmetto, is spherical to oval, turning black when ripe.

The palm may be distinguished from other similar-looking palms by the long, smooth, non-thorny petioles and the downwardly-arching costas.
They will tolerate drought, and adapt to a wide variety of soils, although, of course, they will do better in fertile soil and regular moisture. They survive fire quite well. The palms photographed, by the roadside in Nelly Bay, were set alight by vandals a couple of years ago. The blackened remains looked very woebegone, but in a remarkably short time new growth followed, and the palms now look, if anything, the better for their ordeal.

Once abundant in Texas, its habitat there is now threatened. It has diminished from approximately 40,000 acres (16,000 hectares) in 1925 to some 32 acres (13 hectares) now.

The wood of the trunk is resistant to decomposition and shipworms, making it very suitable for wharf pilings and fence posts. The leaves are used for thatching, and for making hats and fans. The fruit, known as micharo, is edible, and is eaten in some countries, as is the palm heart. The removal of the palm heart, unfortunately, kills the palm.


Photographs aken in Nelly Bay 2012-2016
Page last updated 27th March 2019