By Brenda Eubanks Burnette
We received a request for information several months ago from researcher/historian Jono Miller regarding an old production practice of leaving cabbage palms in citrus groves as “orange guards.” The trees helped protect groves from freezing due to the creation of a canopy to keep the heat from the land rising during cold weather.
In his new publication, The Palmetto Book, Miller notes “South of New Smyrna Beach and Oak Hill, and west over the Florida East Coast Railway tracks and Turnbull Creek, is Turnbull Hammock, a forest that some settlers cleared to establish citrus groves. The towering cabbage palms outside of Oak Hill did not grow up in these groves but rather preceded them.”
He goes on to note that “Some of the oldest and most beautiful citrus groves are dominated by towering cabbage palms. These are the few remaining groves on low hammock land that have retained their orange guards. South Volusia and northern Brevard counties are the places to look. Perhaps the best example extant is the Mullet Hill Farm between Oak Hill and Scottsmoor. The grove, planted in 1905, still sports dozens of mature cabbage palms. This was the grove so densely overshadowed that the owner had nearly twelve dozen removed to facilitate his management of the grove.”
In researching this, I came across an April 1958 photo taken of Turnbull Hammock by Harold Holtsberg which shows the palms there. The palms can also be seen on the Turnbull’s citrus crate label. So, I sent Miller’s chapter (Groves — The Strange Relationship with Citrus) out to a few growers in the Brevard County area and asked what they remembered about why cabbage palms were left in some of the groves.
According to John D’Albora, “We had some old groves up on Merritt Island that had palms in them, but they were left in clumps or hammocks … We had a constant program of killing new palms — especially in or around the fruit trees and rows. I remember using all kinds of things, including diesel fuel and sulfur, to try to control them. Once they had a chance to get established, they were almost impossible to kill short of a chain saw, and palms were hard on chain saws!”
Frank Sullivan’s reply was somewhat similar: “We used to pick some of those groves in the hammocks, and they all had those palm trees. The old-timers all said they left them in for the cold protection, but those groves always froze before any of the others, so I don’t believe they did any good … Turnbull was an old name from Volusia County, and they named the hammock after him because he tried to do a lot of drainage in that area. Marion Whaley started the Victory Groves in the 1800s that we ended up with. I have a letter from Whaley to Turnbull that said they would clear that hammock for $75.00 or for the trade of Mr. Whaley’s launch, which was the boat he used to take the fruit out on the river to the boat that took it up to Jacksonville. I wouldn’t have walked across that area for $75.00, much less clear it!”
Nowadays, though, the cabbage palms are all that’s left of some of those groves. Miller addresses this in his book: “Imagine a grove owner a century or more ago leaving a few orange guards as he set out his small fruit trees. Now picture that grove thriving for decades but ultimately declining — oaks, palms, Brazilian peppers, and other trees and shrubs invading and displacing the citrus. And yet, towering above the green fray are the persistent sentinels, the hammock palms that were spared and watched as the citrus came and went. They remain, the ultimate survivors, deliberately left for the protection they were believed to confer, then tolerated, and finally ignored and abandoned.”
It’s not quite the memory I’d like to keep, but an important piece of history all the same!
Brenda Eubanks Burnette is executive director of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. Pieces of the Past is presented in partnership with Florida Southern College’s McKay Archives Center in Lakeland.
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