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HOW A PALM TREE SAVED AMERICA

April 21, 2010: Hmmm. My very first business blog entry. My problem is I’m really not sure what a business blog is (as reader is warned above)! From what little I’ve garnered on the Internet, a business blog can be the personal face of the business, an extended advertisement, the inner thoughts and musings of the CEO, offer helpful and timely technical information, among other things. Well, I’m not sure even myself would be all that interested in reading my inner thoughts; there are a lot better researched and organized websites for technical information that this; I believe there are limits to how much you can batter a reader over the head with advertising; and a personal face to the business – well that is a worthy goal, but also a wee bit too ambiguous to get me started.

I have been blessed, at least many more times than cursed, as being a teacher whose subject matter was plants. The botanical world as one’s curriculum guide will never leave a teacher bereft of interesting anecdotes and curiosities to help illustrate biological concepts and principles. So that’s how I’ll start this blog. Amazing, Thrilling, Yet True Tales from the World of Plants!

HOW A PALM TREE SAVED AMERICA!

Once upon a time, there was a war, the American Revolution, and there was a tree, the palmetto, and there was a very pivotal location to that war, the port city of Charleston, South Carolina, and all three of these things came together in a serendipitous fashion to create one of those moments that the history of the world (. . . or with less hubris, just the USA) hinges on the outcome.

Early in the Revolutionary War, the British we still the favored winner and being somewhat tired of the pesky American rebels, they determined to make a decisive blow to end their troubles. They determined that blow would be the capture of the Southern coastal ports of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. Considering the rag-tag nature of the American army this would be a simple matter and once the ports were captured the South would be out of the war and the North would then quickly succumb to the British military. They sailed a fleet from Boston to the harbor outside Charleston to quickly capture the city. Alas, the British never even factored in the Americans secret military defense – the palmetto tree.

As the British were sailing to Charleston, the Americans began fortifying the entrances to the harbor at Sullivan’s Island. In command of the defenses was Colonel Moultrie, a Lowcountry planter. The fort he built on Sullivan’s Island, which was only half completed on June 28, 1776 when the British arrived, was considered by many to be a worthless defense. Rather than being built of stone or stout timber walls, the walls were constructed of palmetto trees, a local palm. I’m sure the British guffawed at the sad attempt the colonialists had made to stop their naval juggernaut . . .but the last laugh was on them!

The palmetto, a palm, is a monocot, one of the 2 large groups of flowering plants. It has more in common with a blade of grass or an onion anatomy-wise than an oak tree and it is that anatomical difference that saved the port of Charleston and our fair nation. Palmetto tree at Radford LandcarftYou see monocots have their vascular system, the xylem and phloem (think like veins and arteries in people) in bundles located throughout the trunk and surrounding those bundles are spongy fibers. In contrast, what we typically think of trees, oaks or Douglas fir , are dicots and they have their vascular system separated in rings around the trunk Much of the older vascular system turns into wood or bark eventually, but the result is a harder and stronger trunk in many respects.

Now, back to our shabby unfinished palmetto fort. As the British cannon fire found their mark on the logs of the fort a most curious thing happened. Rather than creating a shattering explosion that would eventually batter down the walls to rubble, the cannonballs harmlessly bounced off. Volley after volley proved ineffective to subduing the fort, while the Americans proved most effective in damaging the British fleet. Short on ammunition (only 28 cannonballs per cannon), Colonel Moultrie ordered his batteries to fire only 1 ball per 10 minutes. This gave lots of time to aim and proved quite deadly to the British fleet. They learned when you’re hiding behind palmetto logs, you’ve got time to do it right.

Eventually, a frustrated and demoralized British fleet, pulled up anchor and sailed away. Days later, Charlestonians learned of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The American victory turned the populace of the South to the Rebel cause. South Carolina flag at Radford Landcarft It wasn’t until 3 years later that the British returned and captured Charleston by land, but by then it was too late to be decisive.

And so, dear reader, the homely palmetto tree with its unique anatomy saved our fledgling nation when it was most vulnerable. The citizens of South Carolina in recognition and gratitude placed the palmetto front and center on its flag and nicknamed itself The Palmetto State. It’s the only state flag to have a tree on it. It is amazing, it is thrilling and yet it’s true!

F & P