Ancient Saw Palmettos in the Heart of Florida

When we think about long lived plants, our minds tend to fixate on bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), or that clonal patch of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) in Utah. What would you say if I told you that we can add a palm tree to that list? Indeed, recent evidence suggests that the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) can reach a ripe old age measured in thousands (yes, thousands) of years.

Now, at this point some of you are probably thinking "how can you measure the age of a palm when there are no annual growth rings?!" This is a legitimate hurdle that had to be overcome before such a claim was made. Using a lot of attention to detail and some crafty mathematics, a team of researchers was able to age saw palmettos in Florida's most ancient habitats.

This work was performed on a peculiar geological formation. Aptly named the "Mid-Florida Ridge," this 150 mile sand ridge bisects the middle of the state. Throughout much of the Pliocene and early Pleistocene, sea levels were as much as 50 meters higher than they were today. Nearly all of Florida was underwater during this time. All that stuck out above the water were a series of small islands. These islands served as refugia for flora and fauna pushed south by repeated glaciations. Once sea level receded to its current level, these islands were left high and dry, thus forming the ridge in question. Because of its history as a refugium, the Mid-Florida Ridge is home to a staggering array of plant species, some of which are endemic to this relatively small area of Florida.

Because of its relative stability through time, the Mid-Florida Ridge is a haven for long lived plant species. Thus, it was a prime location for trying to understand the longevity of the charismatic and ecologically important saw palmetto. By tagging individual palms and observing them year after year, researchers were able to get an idea of exactly how fast this species can grow. Depending on the soil conditions of the immediate area, saw palmettos grow at a rate of somewhere between 0.88 and 2.2 cm per year. They certainly aren't winning any speed races at that rate. Regardless, you can begin to see that an estimate of yearly growth rate can shine a light on how long these palms have been around. Measurements of tagged palmettos growing on the sand ridge show that individuals aged at a staggering 500 years are not uncommon!

This estimate gets a bit complicated when we consider another aspect of saw palmetto biology - they are clonal. For a variety of reasons, as saw palmettos grow, their sprawling stem will often branch out, creating clones of themselves. Over time, the trunk portions that connect these clones rot away, giving the impression that they are unique individuals. Genetic analyses showed that many of the palmettos in the study area were actually clones. Using some pretty sophisticated models coupled with their DNA evidence, the research team was able to reconstruct the growth history of many of these clones, thus allowing them to more accurately age these clonal colonies.

Their results are staggering to say the least. Based on the rate of growth and spread, the estimated age of these clonal patches of saw palmetto range anywhere between 1227–5215 years! At this point you should be asking yourself "how accurate are these data?" The truth is that the researchers were actually being quite conservative in their estimates. For instance, there were likely many clones well outside their study area. If so, they were likely underestimating the growth time of these clonal colonies. Additionally, they were only using the growth rates of adult saw palmettos in calculating average growth rates.

Seedling saw palmettos have been shown to have a reduced growth rate compared to adults, only 0.3 cm per year. Thus, they did not take into account the time it takes for seedlings to reach maturity. The team feel that accounting for such variables could increase the age estimates for such clonal patches to well over 8,000 years! I don't think we should be looking into buying that many birthday candles just yet, however, even their reported estimates are shocking to say the least.

What we can say is that for as long as Florida has been above water, saw palmettos have played an integral role in the ecology of the region. Long before humans began developing the state, the saw palmetto was functioning as a major player, shaping these sand ridge communities into the ecosystems they are today. It is without a doubt, a species worthy of our admiration and respect.

Further Reading: [1]