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OUR STATE TREE: THE PALMETTO PALM

March 27, 2021

Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Noble Tree Foundation, c/o Spartanburg County Foundation, 424 East Kennedy Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, 864-529-3364. This nonprofit promotes the presence of Noble Trees in Spartanburg County through educational opportunities and encouraging tree planting and maintenance programs. https://www.nobletreefoundation.org/

Last summer one of our grandsons found a prized seashell at low tide on Pawleys Island. He spotted a lettered olive as it rolled in the ebb tide. A few days later, he proudly showed me his treasure. I commented that he had found a prime example of the state shell of South Carolina.

“Why does South Carolina have a state shell?” he asked.

A quick internet search revealed that our state shell, the lettered olive (Oliva sayana), was named by a South Carolinian, Dr. Edmund Ravenel of Charleston. It was designated the official state shell by a vote of the South Carolina legislature in 1984.

In that same internet search, we found other designations of state symbols adopted by the state house and senate.

This is a partial listing of some of our more interesting symbols, followed by the adoption date.

  • State amphibian: spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) – The spotted salamander is the only amphibian indigenous to the whole state. It was nominated by a third-grade class at Woodland Heights Elementary School in Spartanburg as the state amphibian. (1999)
  • State animal: white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) – Every county in South Carolina features an open season on deer. (1972)
  • State beverage: Milk was selected as the official beverage of the state because of its dietary value and since dairy farms are found in counties acrorss the state. (1984)
  • State hospitality beverage: tea (Camellia sinensis) – The first place that tea was grown in the United States was in South Carolina in 1799. Tea is still produced on Wadmalaw Island. (1995)
  • State bird: Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) – The wren was chosen as the state bird because its song can be heard all year long. (1948)
  • State wild game bird: wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) – Hunted during a spring season, wild turkeys are found throughout the state. (1976)
  • State duck: wood duck (Aix sponsa) – The wood duck is also known as the summer duck and the Carolina duck. (2009)
  • State butterfly: eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) – English artist Mark Catesby painted this butterfly’s first picture in South Carolina in 1725. (1994)
  • State spider: Carolina wolf spider (Hogna carolinensis) – The state spider was the idea of a third-grade student at Sheridan Elementary School in Orangeburg. (2000)
  • State fish: striped bass or rockfish (Morone saxatilis) – Striped bass can be caught in several large lakes throughout the state. (1972)
  • State flower: yellow jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens) – The return of yellow jasmine each spring is seen throughout South Carolina.
  • State wildflower: goldenrod (Solidago altissima) – With a long bloom time and long-lasting flowers, goldenrod was selected as the official state wildflower.
  • State fruit: peach (Prunus persica) – South Carolina is the second-largest peach producer, behind California and ahead of Georgia. (1984)
  • State snack: boiled peanuts – Boiled peanuts are a popular snack food in the Southern United States.
  • State gemstone: amethyst – South Carolina is one of a few states where good quality amethyst gems can be found. (1969)
  • State stone: blue granite – Many buildings throughout the state have been constructed with blue granite mined here. (1969)
  • State heritage work animal: the mule. (2010)
  • State insect: Carolina mantid (Stagmomantis carolina) –The praying mantis.  (1988)
  • State beetle: seven-spotted ladybug (Coccinella septempunctata) – Both the ladybird beetle and the praying mantis are beneficial insects to the home garden and the farm. (1988)
  • State marine mammal: bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) – Both the state marine mammal and state migratory marine mammal were designated by Act Number 58 of 2009. (2009)
  • State migratory marine mammal: northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) – The right whale can be found off the South Carolina coast during the breeding and calving season. (2009)
  • State reptile: loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) – The loggerhead is a threatened species that nests on South Carolina’s shores. (1988)
  • State craft: sweetgrass basket weaving – Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes), is native to the coastal dunes of the Carolinas.  It was the perfect material for African slaves to utilize their traditional skills to produce a tightly-woven coiled basket.
  • State dance: shag – The shag was selected as the state dance because it originated in South Carolina. (1984)
  • State popular music: beach music – Beach music is closely associated with the state dance, the shag, and is also considered to have originated in Myrtle Beach. (2001)
  • State motto: Dum spiro spero (While I breathe, I hope). It appears on the state seal and some of the state’s license plates.
  • Our grandson was particularly interested in our state dog: the Boykin Spaniel. It is a small dog with a brown, curly coat and golden eyes. It was bred primarily for waterfowl hunting. The dog is known for its cheerful personality and energy. (1985)
  • State color: indigo blue – The color indigo blue comes from the 2nd South Carolina Regiment’s uniforms. The state flag is indigo blue in remembrance of this regiment. The palmetto tree on the flag recalls Charleston’s successful defense during the American Revolutionary War at a fort built of palmetto logs. (2008)
  • State tree: Sabal palmetto (Sabal palmetto) – The palmetto has been a symbol for South Carolina since the American Revolutionary War when it was used to build a fort on Sullivan’s Island that withstood British attack. The palmetto tree appears on the first symbol of the state, the seal created in 1777. It was officially named the state tree in 1939.

Since today is Palm Sunday, perhaps it is appropriate to say more about the Palmetto Palm, the state tree of South Carolina.

Back in the days before air conditioning, summer evenings in South Carolina were often spent outside. I can recall my grandparents saying after supper, “Let’s go sit in the yard.” Sitting outside was usually accompanied by cold beverages of choice, time for stargazing to identify constellations, plenty of good stories, and other comfort items. Pappy enjoy a good aromatic cigar. Mammy always had a few Palmetto frond fans to pass around.

Each fan was a single palm frond woven into a heart shape used to stir the air and ward off biting insects. I think Mammy also used them to clear Pappy’s cloud of cigar smoke.

The palmetto tree has other uses as well. The bristles on the sheaths of young leaves have been made into scrubbing brushes. The trunks have been used as wharf piles.

The native range of palmetto trees in the United States is the lower East Coast from North Carolina southward to Florida and west along the Gulf Coastal to Texas. The Sabal palmetto grows up to 65 feet tall. The tree is also known as cabbage-palm, cabbage palmetto, Carolina palmetto, and swamp cabbage. There are fifteen species of the palmetto palm. It is salt-tolerant and is often seen growing near both the Atlantic Ocean coast and the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Maintenance of the state tree is easy and adaptable. The palmetto is known to endure drought, standing water, and brackish water. It is highly tolerant of salt winds, but not saltwater flooding. It is considered almost hurricane-proof.

In the Palmetto State, the tree is highly regarded. Our local council of Scouting USA is named the Palmetto Council.  The annual football rivalry game between Clemson and South Carolina is known as the Palmetto Bowl. A silhouette of a palmetto appears on the official flag of the state of South Carolina.

Why is the palmetto tree held in such esteem?

At the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, Colonel William Moultrie took command of Sullivan’s Island on March 2, 1776. Included among his troops was a garrison of 413 soldiers of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment Infantry and twenty-two from the 4th South Carolina Regiment, artillery. The island included a fort still under construction at the southern tip of the island. The blue flag on the southeast bastion had the word Liberty emblazoned upon it.

South Carolina patriots were building Fort Sullivan to guard Charleston Harbor. The fort was constructed of parallel layers of palmetto logs reinforced with sand. British Admiral Sir Peter Parker, with nine British warships, attacked the fort on June 28, 1776.  The soft palmetto logs did not crack under bombardment but rather absorbed the shot. Cannonballs even bounced off the walls of the structure. The day-long battle ended with the heavily damaged British ships being driven from the area. Moultrie was promoted to General, and the fort took its name, as Fort Moultrie, in his honor.

South Carolina’s state seal is made up of two elliptical areas linked by the palmetto tree branches. The image on the left pictures a tall palmetto tree and an oak tree, fallen and broken. This scene represents the battle fought on June 28, 1776, between defenders of the unfinished fort on Sullivan’s Island and the British Fleet. The standing palmetto represents the victorious patriots, and the fallen oak represents the defeated British Fleet.

The Gospels of the New Testament record the events of the first Palm Sunday. Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerate rabbi who had gained popularity and a large following of disciples. He was considered a threat to both the Roman government and the Jewish religious establishment.

On the Sunday before the Jewish Feast of the Passover, he rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives to enter the ancient city of Jerusalem. On the mountainside, he paused briefly to weep over the city. Imagine his legs dangling, his sandaled feet nearly scraping the stone pavement, and tears running into his beard.

Further along, the crowd began praising him. “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They spread their garments before him. They waved branches from date palms.

They anticipated liberation from the Romans. Jesus knew his destiny. This final week of his earthly life will cost him dearly. By Friday, the adoring crowd will be an angry mob, no longer shouting praises. Their voices will have turned to jeers and curses. “Crucify him!”

Imagine this happening in our own time. Can you envision Jesus weeping over cities like ours? Towns like Spartanburg, Boulder, or Saint Paul. Large metropolitan areas like New York and Atlanta. National capitals like Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and Nay Pyi Taw. In my mind’s eye, I can see the crowd waving palm branches and singing with Leonard Cohen “Hallelujah.” And I can see my grandmother, Mammy, weeping with Jesus over a broken world. She is waving a heart-shaped fan woven from a Palmetto Palm frond.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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