Day Trips: Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville
Sanctuary safeguards rare island of palms behind border wall
Sabal Palm Sanctuary in Brownsville protects a rare piece of old Texas. At one time, the thick palm tree forest extended more than 80 miles up the Rio Grande. Today, the 557-acre natural area is largest of the few islands of the original landscape. A Victorian mansion at the sanctuary welcomes visitors to four miles of shaded hiking trails. With hundreds of unique plants in the woodland, signage along the paths help visitors identify the vegetation.
The fan-shaped fronds of the Sabal mexicana, the only palm tree native to Texas, hang from trunks that grow to 50 feet tall. Florida declared its cousin the Sabal palmetto as its state tree. Only a horticulturist can tell the difference between the Texas palm and the heartier Carolina palm used in urban landscaping.
The sanctuary was once part of Frank and Lillian Rabb's 2,000-acre plantation. The Rabbs were responsible for cutting down the trees and bringing agriculture to the southernmost tip of Texas, but also for saving the riverside grove of palms.
The National Audubon Society obtained the property in 1971 but discontinued its use by the public after the border wall isolated the preserve. Since 2010, the Gorgas Science Foundation, a local nonprofit organization, has operated the sanctuary. A gate in the border fence allows unrestricted access from 7am to 5pm daily (closed on Wednesdays).
Sabal Palm Sanctuary is at 8435 Sabal Palm Grove Rd., off Southmost Boulevard in southeast Brownsville. Besides the diversity of plants in the palm forest, the preserve hosts hundreds of species of resident and migratory birds. A butterfly garden behind the Rabb Plantation House adds to the number of viewable wildlife. For more info: 956/541-8034 or www.sabalpalmsanctuary.org.
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