Celebrating the Sabal palm
At over 200 years old, the Sabal palm was the oldest living specimen at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE).
As a young plant, it had lived in RBGE’s third site near Leith Walk, before being transported to the Tropical Palm House where it thrived throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. In 2021, as the palm neared the end of its life and the Palm House was being prepared for restoration work, our horticulturists, scientists and artists found ingenious ways to ensure that the Sabal palm would live on.
Watch the short film below to hear more about their work.
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Celebrating the Sabal palm
- Read video transcript
Video Transcript Time Description [Simon Allan, Horticulturist] The Sabal palm was thought to be the oldest plant in the Living Collection. The specimen that we had in the Tropical Palm House is 200 years old, possibly more than that. It was growing in the centre of the Tropical Palm House until 2021, when it unfortunately had to be removed. We had to completely empty the glasshouses for the Biomes project restoration. It was an iconic plant and it was difficult to have to remove it, but we knew that we would be able to propagate from it. We've got a few plants of different ages. We've got some which had seeded themselves in the Tropical Palm House, and some of those are about seven or eight years old now, and sort of three or four feet tall. Just beginning to show the characteristics of the adults with the broad fanned leaf. The youngest ones are, sort of, two years old now. We can plant them back out when the restoration project is complete, so that people can enjoy and learn from these plants, as many generations have previously. [Dr Axel Dalberg Poulsen, Tropical Botanist] My job was to take selected parts of this palm into a collection of plant material. We call it a herbarium. You can think of it as a museum of plant collection. To move from having a very large palm in a huge glasshouse into something that characterizes this species and what can fit into a box, a small box. What you can take is a cross-section of the stem, parts of the leaf, but not a whole leaf, and whatever fertile material is there, like fruits or flowers. The interesting part of my job was to check the identification. For 200 years, this plant has been called Sabal bermudana, but when I checked all the more recent literature, actually it turns out to be Sabal mexicana. [Jacqui Pestell MBE, Head of Botanical Illustration]] The purpose of painting the Sabal palm was really to record this wonderful tree, 200-year-old tree, for the archives and for science and for the public to enjoy. The three paintings are, first one, the whole tree, capturing the perspective of the scale of this tree. The second one is the wonderful huge leaf. And the third painting is of a branch of the fruits. The first step was to photograph the angles of the tree from above. We then figured out, through drawing and sketching, just how we would work these three pieces on to the paper. We then embarked on the artists working at different times on different parts, different areas, and moving around. And it meant, actually, that no one area of the paintings were completed by one artist. The paintings really are a lovely legacy for the Botanic Gardens, and soon they're gonna be framed and in the reception for everyone to see and enjoy.