Southern Agenda

Wild at Heart

Every year, the little Old Florida town of LaBelle, just east of Fort Myers, throws a party for swamp cabbage, the local term for the tender hearts harvested from the state’s native sabal palms. The two-day Swamp Cabbage Festival, held on the last weekend of February, began as a Jaycees project to inspire community pride; currently in its fifty-eighth year, it now draws thousands to oak-shaded Barron Park on the scenic Caloosahatchee River. An abundant food source historically significant to Indigenous populations and early pioneers, the versatile vegetable can be used in hearty stews and soups or sweeter concoctions. Black bears are also known to scale sabal palms, which can tower forty to fifty feet. “They stomp down the tops and then devour the heart,” says Jerri Blake, of Blake’s Cupcakery. Luckily, festivalgoers have it easier. Blake brines fresh-cut swamp cabbage in lemon—to keep it from turning an “unappetizing gray,” she says—and wields spices like cinnamon and nutmeg to impart a nutty flavor. “It’s the sweetest way to eat a tree.”