Amelia’s Last Great Grove of Sabal Palms Hangs in the Balance

By Lauri deGaris

Recently, I walked along the south end of Amelia Island’s beach with a dear friend. As we approached the 52-acre, undeveloped Riverstone parcel, I stood in awe of a great grove of palm trees rising to the sky like parasols. Hundreds and hundreds of tall, slender sabal palms stand anchored in the sand dunes, like sentinels by the sea.

Without a doubt, this grove of palm trees is the largest and last grove of its kind on Amelia Island. The grove is a stunning sight, especially for us longtime Floridians. We know the historical value of this native tree found in marshes, hammocks, and along seashore dunes.

The sabal palm is native to southeastern North America and the Bahamas. Naturally, the sabal palm grows in large clumps called groves. The tree trunk is encased in plaited-like “boots,” which are old leaf bases. Boots are found on mostly young palm trees. As the tree matures, many shed the boots, revealing a smooth trunk that towers 40 to 60 feet tall. The sabal or “cabbage” palm is the state tree of Florida and South Carolina. Although, in South Carolina, it is called the sabal palmetto.

The fan-shaped leaves of the sabal palm are green and grow four to six feet in length. This palm produces a long droop with greenish-white, fragrant flowers about one-quarter inch wide. The fruit is one-half inch round and brownish-black in color. It is a favorite food for many foraging birds.

Birds are not the only ones who enjoy the sabal palm tree. The heart of the sabal palm tree was very important to Indigenous people living along the coast of southeast North America. People have been consuming heart of palm for thousands of years. The tradition of harvesting hearts of palm for food remained a healthy part of the Southern diet until just after World War II.

In 1942, Majorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote that swamp cabbage is the sportsman’s friend. “If one makes camp near a palm-grove he can use this vegetable to accompany his fish or game directly from the land.” In Marjorie’s cookbook “Cross Creek Cookery,” she notes that she is “uneasy about recommending swamp cabbage, for this greatest of Florida vegetables is the white core of a young palm tree.” Its cutting means the death of the tree. She says, “I fear always that some enterprising backwoodsman will take a notion to send them to market, and that the beautiful tropical palm groves will be decimated.”

Majorie does proceed to describe how to pick the perfect palm as food. She instructs one to choose a young tree from a large grove that will not be missed. The tree must be no more than 10 feet tall, or the core will be tough and bitter. Palms growing too close to water are also likely to be bitter. Majorie notes the Florida bear knows the goodness of this food. Bears slash the palms to their roots and harvest the heart with their giant, fork-like claws.

Marjorie’s cookbook offers several recipes for hearts of palm, which are similar in flavor to chestnuts. Her advice is to thinly slice the heart of palms and boil with bacon. Or, one can substitute butter for bacon, add a small amount of water and salt to sliced hearts of palm, and simmer until tender. Finish the dish by adding just enough cream to cover the hearts, simmer a minute more, and serve at once. Marjorie claims hearts of palm prepared this way is a dish fit for a king.

Personally, I love hearts of palm. My favorite heart of palm recipe comes from long-time friend and chef Art Jenette. Art calls himself the “Art of Cracker Cookin,” and his recipe for hearts of palm salad dressing is the best.

In a food processor, combine one 16-ounce can of hearts of palm, drained, with ¼ cup olive oil and ¼ cup white vinegar. Add to this one small jar of pimento, ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese, two cloves of garlic, and a large pinch of sugar, salt, and pepper to taste. Pulse in processor until all ingredients are blended well. Add a little water, if necessary, to thin the dressing. This dressing is perfect on a bed of mixed greens.

It is illegal to harvest hearts of palm in North America today. However, Central and South American hearts of palm are commercially cultivated. You can find them canned in local supermarkets. Publix on the island carries canned hearts of palm.

Today, it is not the backwoodsman taking cabbage palms that worries me. It is unbridled growth that is decimating the sabal palm groves native to this region that worries me. Sabal palm trees can withstand hurricane-force winds. They provide food and shelter for many kinds of birds. The tall, stately sabal palm also casts a shadow on sunny days, which can be very welcoming during the long, hot summer.

The fate of the last great grove of sabal palms residing on Amelia Island will be decided in court. With all my heart, I hope this grove of sabal palms will be anchored in the dunes along our beaches for generations to come as part of Amelia Island State Park.

The Amelia Island Tree Conservancy and Citizens Against Runaway Development are fighting to protect the 52-acre Riverstone oceanfront site from development. Updated information about current litigation and ways you can support their effort can be found here.

May the last great grove of sabal palms on Amelia Island be protected so we can stand in awe as we observe this tropical treasure from Mother Nature.


Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Mark Tomes
Noble Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 month ago

Beautiful article, as always. Let’s hope the county and/or state step up and buy the Riverstone property. And please support the AITC and CARD in their efforts to stop the development. As an aside, the “boot” Lauri mentions is called that because it resembles the boot jack, an old-fashioned device for removing tall and difficult-to-remove boots.

Noble Member
1 month ago

Yes! CARD and the Tree Conservancy are very worthy of our support. That dressing sounds good. Marjorie Kennan Rawlings and Cross Creek are a treasure.

Pat F-T
Pat F-T(@pat-f-t)
1 month ago

Great article! And great to know that you also know Art Jenette!

Kathy Blacklock
Active Member
Kathy Blacklock(@blacklock)
1 month ago
Reply to  Pat F-T

We know Art, too, from way back when The Palms was nearby. He’s a good friend. 🙂

Lyn Pannone
Trusted Member
Lyn Pannone(@lyn-pannone)
1 month ago

Want to help preserve this property? Donate to the legal fund for Riverstone at or
[email protected](@horizoncoalyahoo-com)
1 month ago

Very good article, thank you. Let’s not forget that adjoining the proposed Riverstone property are two FWC Critical Wildlife Areas (CWA). There are only thirty-three CWAs in the state of Florida. Two of them are on Amelia Island on the South End. These two CWA’s support imperiled wildlife species, such as Wilson’s Plover, Least Terns, Royal Terns, Black Skimmers, Gulf-billed Terns, Piping Plover, American Oystercatchers, Red Knots and other endangered wildlife. To develop this Riverstone property with eleven high rise condos would destroy these CWA areas and the wildlife. Building eleven high-rise condos next to CWA’s areas should be considered criminal and stopped. I would hope the people of Amelia Island and Nassau County would bond together to stop this proposed development. Thank You, Jeff Jenkins

Betsie Huben
Noble Member
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
1 month ago

As citizens, we must band together and offer support AITC and CARD in their efforts. As we know, our County Commissioners prefer not only to negotiate away what cannot be replaced but they also want to reward the developer with $250K as a consolation prize when they do it.

Paula M
Noble Member
Paula M(@paula-m)
1 month ago

Wonderful article..please heed these these magnificent palms.

Noble Member
1 month ago

Thank you all for your support of CARD and ATC on this issue

We founded CARD (Citizens Against Runaway Development) in the wake of the outrageous reversal by the “new” Board of County Commissioners to accept an even WORSE agreement with Riverstone regarding the height ordinances in Nassau County than the one the “old” Board had declined.

This is about the dreaded opportunity to build CONCRETE TOWERS of at LEAST 85 ft in height smack in the middle of the last great undisturbed parcel of maritime forest on Amelia Island that is home to these lovely palms. The current County height ordinance limits buildings to 45 ft.

CARD and Amelia Tree Conservancy joined forces to sue Nassau County to void the agreement which we confidently believe is ILLEGAL because it was developed in SECRET negotiations with NO public input prior to voting by the Commission.

For details on our suit and updates please go to:

This issue is far from settled so we are still encouraging all citizens to offer what you can to our legal fund. You can donate online at

And when you subscribe to CARD (no cost) you will get updates that we send on our progress to defeat this disastrous agreement.

Please stay tuned to developments on this issue! We need EVERYONE to fight it!

Trusted Member
1 month ago

Great article, Lauri. Our sabal palms are native, part of our natural environment and sense of place. And this is one of many reasons why this parcel should be conserved. This is important for our storm protection on the south end of the island and for the protection of nesting sites for migratory birds. Our protection of our natural environment and sense of place are fundamental to the future economy of Nassau County.

Unfortunately, this same fate is befalling other native trees and shrubs as well. We are losing Sugarberry, Bumelia, Beauty Berry and even the Live Oaks we have been known for. Failure to manage our development is having a very serious impact on our future. We need to do better.

1 month ago

Very good article with one exeption, it is not illegal to harvest Sabal palmetto in Florida for any reason. It is illegal to harvest cabbage palms on someone else’s property without permission. The City of Labelle may still hold their “Swamp Cabbage Festival” and I’m pretty sure they are not importing it all from South America 

All the best on your land conservation efforts!

Fred Rothe
Fred Rothe(@fred-rothe)
1 month ago

It would really be in the best interest of the local citizens to protect the palm stands and other wild areas, as long as possible. My wife and I come to Fernandina at least once a year. I was born on Long Beach Island NJ, 70+ years ago. At that time, it was similar to Fernandina, a nice place to live. I went to LBI in December, first time in 50 years. It was so ridiculously built up it was ridiculous. You actually have to buy a pass to go on the beach. That’s in season, but homeowners have to pay also.
Building on every square inch of available space, helps no one but the big corporations. For the locals, just more taxes, higher prices, ans higher crime. I’m a tourist, but please don’t let Fernandina turn into a big tourist trap.