Florida’s formal relationship with the palm dates to 1953, the year the legislature voted to designate the sabal palm (sabal palmetto) as Florida’s official state tree. The 1949 House of Representatives had initially selected the royal palm (Roystonea regia) for this distinction, presumably for its huge stature and regal appearance, but the Senate rejected the idea in favor of several other species. Four years later, at the encouragement of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, Sabal palmetto edged out the competition to be named the state’s most representative tree species.
Worldwide, the Arecaceae is composed of about 189 genera and perhaps 2,360 species. Only a few of these are indigenous to the continental United States, and most of these are restricted to the warmer regions of southern Florida and southern California. However, a large number of exotic species have been imported for ornamental purposes. At least a few of these have become widely naturalized and some are now considered troublesome invasive species.
Eight tree-size palms in seven genera are native to Florida. All are of tropical origin, and with only two exceptions, are found mostly in the state’s southern counties, where they are better protected from the killing effects of north Florida’s occasionally freezing temperatures.