How to Grow and Care for Saw Palmetto Palm (Serenoa repens)

Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens) with silver leaves.
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens) with silver leaves. Photo by Flickr.

The Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens), is one of the most popular palm trees. Native to Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains of South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi and all of Florida, this slow growing palm can be used as a screening plant, backdrop, focal point, or as a filler for planting beds.

It has green fan shaped leaves with saw-like teeth on the leaf stems, hence it’s name “Saw Palmetto Palm”. It is drought tolerant, salt tolerant, cold hardy, and low maintenance. 

While it can tolerate cold down to 22F, making it a perfect palm for landscapes in USDA zones 8-11, it’s also known to survive in zone 7 with the temperatures dropping down to 0F.

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Quick Facts:

Scientific name:Serenoa repens or Sereno repens
Common names:Saw Palmetto, Silver Saw Palmetto Palm, Scrub Palm
Origin:Native to Florida and grows all over southeastern United States
Growth Rate:Slow. Up to 3 – 6ft tall and 1-5 ft wide.
Cold Tolerance:USDA Zones 8a (10 – 15 F) to 11 (above 40 F).
Light Req:Light shade to full sun.
Water Req:Drought tolerant.
Soil Req:Widely adaptable.
Fruit:Yes. Blue black berries.
Propagation:Seed, germinating takes months.

Saw Palmetto Palm Appearance

This palm is a slow growing shrub with stems occurring below the ground or running along the ground, creating a dense ground cover. Stems gradually bury to form rhizomes. Rhizomes are horizontal underground plant stems that produce new shoots and roots down into the soil.

Stems sprouted from rhizomes can measure up to 10 feet in length. Occasionally, it develops erect or arching trunk that is covered with old leaf bases.

Each clump has about 20-25 large palmate, fan shaped, leaves, that are supported by 2ft long, petioles. Stems are armed with very sharp spines. This shrub can spread up to 10ft or more in diameter, but mostly stays around 4 – 5 ft.

Leaves are evergreen, stiff, about 3ft across, covered with waxy film, with 18-20 leaflets. While the common Serenoa repens has green leaves, there are also some varieties with silvery-green leaved types.

Saw Palmetto Palm Flowers and Fruits

Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens) fruits
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens). Photo by Flickr.

During spring this palm produces small, yellow-white, fragrant flowers that are growing in dense clusters. Flowers are supported by 3ft long branched inflorescence emerging from the leaf bases.

These flowers are a great source of a commercial high-grade honey. This is actually honey made from Serenoa repens. I haven’t tried it but it has great reviews.

Honey made out of Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens)

Flowers are followed by yellowish green fruits that gradually turn blue-black as they ripen August through October. Fruits are small, berry-like, oval and fleshy. These berries are an important food source for many mammals and birds. They are not poisonous.

The ripe berries are totally edible but don’t particularly teste that good. They have a flavor of a strong oily blue cheese followed by an intense peppery blast.

These berries have also been used for medicinal purposes helping to treat some prostate and urinary problems. I also found a supplement that claims to reduces frequent urination urges, fights hair loss, and supports prostate health. With over 400 five star reviews it might be worth trying.

Medicine made from Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens)

How to Care For Saw Palmetto Palm

This low maintenance palm is very easy to care for once it’s established which takes a long time. It prefers full sun and acidic or alkaline soil with good drainage.

Hight salt tolerance makes saw palmetto perfect for growing near a seashore, next to a sidewalk or driveway that might get some winter salting. While it can tolerate some shade and is very drought tolerant, it doesn’t do well under heavy shade and in wet conditions.

Although it can survive without any care, it looks much better with regular fertilization and irrigation. If you planning on getting saw palmetto for your yard, I would recommend getting it from a nursery instead of transplanting it from the wild because it does not transplant very well.

Young plant might need some protection from rabbits and deer that like to nip off the leaves near the bases. Annual trimming of dry leaves will keep it looking clean.

Light

Like most palms, Serenoa repens likes full sun, but will tolerate some shade. It will do well as a shrub in light shade under a taller tree. Avoid planting it in a heavily shaded area.

Before planting a newly purchased palm in full sun, get it acclimated to decrease the transplant shock. At the nursery, it was probably grown in a green house with lower light levels. You can place the container in the planting area a week in advance. 

If you are planning on using it as a container plant indoors, it could be challenging to provide it with enough sunlight. Wilted and droopy leaves can be an indicator that the palm is not getting enough light.

The best location in the house would be south- or west facing room with plenty of light and also some direct sunlight. Additionally, you can take it outside during warm month so it gets more sunlight.

Soil

As I have mentioned previously, saw palmetto prefers either acidic or alkaline soil that drains well. Just to clarify, acidic soil have pH level of less than 7 (pH runs from 0 to 14) which is in the middle of scale. Soils with a pH level higher than 7 is alkaline.

Acidic soil is the norm in many places, including in most wooded areas. You can check your pH level at local extension office or by getting a DIY pH Meter from Amazon.

Most of the time saw palmetto doesn’t require any soil amendments unless grown out of normal environment in clay soils.

Watering

Serenoa repens is very drought tolerant but likes regular light watering. While it might survive in wet conditions, it won’t look that great. However, make sure to provide it with enough water and good drainage for the first few years.

Water a newly planted palm every day for the fist week, every other day for the second week, and then switch to its regular watering schedule. Once the plant has established, which usually happens after about 3 years, you can decrease the watering.

Apply 1 to 2 inch layer of mulch to help keeping the soil moist. When a adding mulch, make sure it is 6 inches away from the base of the palm to avoid rotting.

During periods with little to no rainfall, you can spray the foliage with mist to increase humidity level.

Fertilizing

Fertilize it twice a year with slow release good quality fertilizer for palms if you notice it needs more nutrients. Most of the time this plant will be able to get all the necessary nutrients from the ground.

You might have to pay for attention to fertilization schedule if it’s grown in the container and indoor. I recommend using a palm fertilizer for indoors that provides continuous supply of nutrients to the roots.

Temperature

This is one of the most cold hardiest palm trees that can tolerate cold down to 22F whiteout losing its foliage.

It is great for USDA Zones 8a (10 – 15 F) to 11 (above 40 F). According to book “Palms Won’t Grow Here“, it is also known to grow in a zones 7a and 6a which gets cold temperatures in the winter months.

Believe it or not, there are even a few plants that could be found in microclimates in southwestern Ohio! I am guessing they are getting some winter protection to survive those cold temperatures.

There are some evidence that green Serenoa repens is more cold tolerant than the silver one. Regardless of the form, a severe leaf damage will occur if the temperature drops below 10F and complete defoliation will happen at around 5F.

If the cold temperatures are accompanied by strong wind chills, the leaves can get severely burned at around 18F. But even after a severe leaf damage, saw palmetto usually quickly recovers the following growing season since its bud is located underground.

Pruning

Since this is a very slow growing plant, you won’t need to do a lot of pruning. Once in a while you will need to trim brown dry leaves.

Do so by cutting horizontally through the base of the stem 1/2 inches above the point where the stem emerges from the soil or joins the trunk. Wear gloves to protect yourself from the “teeth” on the leaf stems.

Common Pests/Diseases

It has very few nutrient problems and diseases are also rare. Sometimes it gets attacked by palmetto weevil which is a minor pest that attacks only severely wounded and dying trees. 

Propagating

Saw palmetto spreads by rhizomes but can also be propagated from the seeds. Since it takes a few months to germinate, most nurseries do rhizome cuttings. If you want to try doing it from the seed, start immediately after harvesting.

First soak it in warm water for 24 hours first to allow moisture to seep through. After it sprouts, which could take a few months, plant into a pot. It will take a few yeas before you can transplant it.

As you can see, it’s probably easier to buy a little more established palm instead of growing it from the seed. 

Landscaping With Saw Palmetto Palm

Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens) in the landscape under a taller palm
Saw Palmetto Palm (Serenoa repens) growing under a taller palm tree.

As I’ve mentioned above, they are perfect for a backdrop, filling up a planting bed or as a shrubs in light shade under tall trees. A large tree can be even be used as a handsome focal point.

The only thing I would recommend is to plant it away from play areas, driveways, walkways or any other place where saw-like teeth of the palm would cause harm. 

In the beautiful picture above Serenoa repens is planted under a taller palm tree. I think this is an ideal location for this plant since it is very slow growing. I love the combination of silver leaves and other smaller brighter tropical plants. They compliment each other very well and create a nice contrast.

Keep in mind, established Saw Palmettos do not transplant easily so it’s important to pick the right spot.

Growing Saw Palmetto Palm Indoors

Saw palmetto makes a great indoor plant because it’s slow growing, adapts to wide range of soil, has low nutritional needs, and can tolerate drought very well.

While saw this plant can grow in almost any light conditions, it prefers full sun. So, find a bright spot in the house preferably with some direct sunlight.

Also, avoid placing it directly under the HVAC vent because it will dry up the leaves of the plant. I know that many vents are located right above or under the windows, so it might be challenging to find the right spot.

Unlike many other houseplants that need repotting every year, you can repot saw palmetto every three years or less. Even if you are using the same pot, changing up the potting mix will prevent fertilizer and salt buildup and will encourage better growth.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section I want to answer some of the most popular questions I get about this plant.

How Fast Do Saw Palmetto Palms Grow?

Depending on the growing conditions Saw Palmetto Palm grows only about 1 – 2 inches per year. This is a very slow growing palm that eventually can grow up to 5-10ft tall and 1-5 ft wide.

It will grow slower in the container than in the ground. Full sun and good drainage will encourage the growth while heavy shade and wet soggy soil will slow it down.

These specimens have a very long life span and are known to live for over 700 years. Overtime their sprawling stems will often branch out, creating clones of themselves.

How to Remove/Kill Saw Palmetto Palm?

While it is a slow growing palm, if not managed property it can become invasive, crowding out other plants.

Getting rid of saw palmetto, once it’s well established might not be an easy task since it has strong underground stems that not only help them to survive fires, but also provide starts for new plants alongside the original plant. 

In the beginning of the Spring use combination of digging, cutting and herbicide application. You can start by cutting all the leaves and mowing the rest with a brush cutter. Once it starts to grow again use weed killer (I prefer organic) as directed on the product.

If you don’t see any growth after that, you can dig out the stump. For larger stumps I recommend using a stump grinder since it can reach deeper into the ground. Since stump grinder are pretty expensive I would rent it from Home Depot instead of buying it.

How to Protect Saw Palmetto Palm From Cold Weather?

Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens) under snow

Since this palm is so cold tolerant it usually doesn’t need a winter protection unless you are growing it in zone 7 where temperatures drop really low. Just like with other palm trees heavy mulching and application of fungicide/bactericide spray will help. Add about 3 – 4 inches of organic mulch around the palm. 

You could also wrap smaller plants with fabric and even put heater cables around trunk and the leaf bases. The problem is that the leaves are very stiff which makes it almost impossible to wrap without extensive damage. 

What Is the Difference Between Palm and Palmetto Trees?

Palmettoes are one variety of over 2,600 palm species throughout the world. The main difference between the two is the size. While palm trees can achieve 80ft in height, palmetto trees grow up to 30-60ft.

Another distinguishing feature is that trunks of palms grow vertically while trunks of palmetto trees grow horizontally.

Also, leaves of the palmettoes are star-shaped and tend to be larger and flatter. I think that due to their small height palmettoes are trying to catch as much sun as they can.

Palms also have larger and heavier fruits, while palmettoes bear smaller berries.

Saw Palmetto Palm Pictures

Large Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens)
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens). Photo by Flickr.
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens) in the container at a nursery.
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens). Photo by Flickr.
Large cluster of Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens) with visible trunk.
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens). Photo by Flickr.
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens) with flowers
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens). Photo by Flickr.
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens)
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens). Photo by Flickr.
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens)
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens). Photo by Flickr.
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens) that needs pruning.
Saw Palmetto Palm Tree (Serenoa repens). Photo by Flickr.

More information can be found on EDIS and Floridata sites.

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