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History of the Discovery of the Native American Palm Trees


William Bartram, the famous botanist and explorer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was commissioned by the English aristocrats to collect, identify and record the plant and animal life growing in the English colonies. The English colonies were acquired from Spain, after the Spanish settlements were conquered and abandoned to the English. John Bartram, the father of William Bartram, accompanied his son on several early, exploratory missions, and his father helped to secure a financial sponsorship of William Bartram on his interesting but dangerous exploits into the land of the Indians, alligators, snakes and bears. Bartram lived in the wild during much of the time in American jungles living congenially among the Indians, and even in the homes of settlers who found him a fascinating guest. The English settlers generously opened their doors of hospitality to him, wining and dining him and treating him locally and physically with herbs and medicinal remedies, when on several occasions, he became deathly sick or injured. Bartram discovered many American native, unknown birds and exotic native plants that he identified for the first time in his writings. William Bartram referred to “the pompous palms of Florida: in his book, Travels, page X. Bartram wrote “The pompous palms of Florida, and the glorious Magnolia, strikes us with the sense of dignity and magnificence.”


William Bartram in his book, Travels, page 59, states that he left St. Simon's Island, Georgia, and vividly described on his leaving, “many curious vegetable productions, particularly, Corypha Palma”, or “great Cabbage palm,. Corphya pumila, Corypha repens......spinosis (dwarf saw palmetto,) Corypha obliqua, caudice arboreo adscendente”, the last identification being a mystery and unknown even today. Bartram used three terms to identify the Sabal Palm; (Sabal palmetto); the “great cabbage palm” 'Corypha Palma”, and “Corypha pumila”. Bartram identified the “Corypha repens”, which is a saw palmetto, Serenoa serrulata, and “spinosis (Dwarf Saw Palmetto),” today called, Sabal minor, which is also a synonym for “Corypha obliqua”. The Sabal palm tree is the adopted, State Tree in Florida and South Carolina.


From the furtherest Southern point of St. Simon's, William Bartram, reported seeing a distant house and a farm and he reported that “This delightful habitation was situated in the midst of a spacious grove of live oaks and palms, near the strand of the bay”. Travels, page 58.


At Bartram's journey to Cuscowilla in North Florida, he wrote, Travels, page 113,...”The palm trees here seem to be of a different species from the cabbage tree, their straight trunks are sixty, eighty or ninety feet high with a beautiful taper, of a bright ash colour, until within six or seven feet of the top, where it is a fine green colour, crowned with an orb of rich green plumed leaves: I have measured the stem of these plumes fifteen feet in length, besides the plume, which is nearly of the same length.


William Bartram discovered the evolutionary, primitive Zamia palm, today called, Zamia pumila growing near Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 1773, reporting that it “grows in the open pine forests in tufts or clumps, a large conical strobile disclosing its large coral red fruit, which appears singularly beautiful amidst the deep green fern-like pinnated leaves.” Travels, page, 160.


William Bartram identified the Spanish Bayonet, Yucca aloifolia, as a “Palmetto royal....a very singular and beautiful production. It may be termed a tree, from its durability and magnitude.” Travels, page, 69.