Tocobaga Florida Bushcraft: Making Cordage From Palmettos

Like Native American tribes everywhere, the people who lived in Tampa Bay before European contact (the Tocobaga) had to meet all their needs from locally-available natural materials.

One of the most versatile plants that could be used by the Tocobaga was the palmetto, several species of which are very common in the area. These miniature palm trees provided food, shelter, and tools for the Natives.

One of the tools that the people needed was cordage, whether it was rope for tying the framework of structures and shelters, cord for making fishing nets, string for bows, or thread for sewing or for fishing lines. And the Florida palmettos presented several different methods of making usable cordage.

There are several species of palmetto in Tampa Bay, including the Saw Palmetto and the Sabal Palm (also known as the Cabbage Palm). They have easily-recognizable fanlike fronds, and they often form thick dense undergrowth in tracts of pine or oak forest. Different parts of the frond can be used for cordage of varying strength.

Palmetto usually forms a thick blanket of understory

Sabal Palm, aka Cabbage Palm

Sawtooth Palmetto has these razor-sharp teeth along the edges of its frond stems. You don’t wanna mess with those.

The only tool you will need is a pocketknife. (The Tocobaga of course made their knives out of flaked stone.)

My tool of choice is this flint blade that I made a while ago. It is super-sharp.

The first method of producing palmetto cordage is quick and easy, but produces rough string with the least strength. It is still suitable for things like tying wooden poles together for quick shelters or lean-tos. This method uses the thick woody stem part of the palmetto frond. For reasons that will be obvious, it works best with Sabal Palm rather than Saw Palmetto.

After cutting a shallow notch into the side of the frond stem, you’ll be able to split off a piece about 1/8 inch wide

Peel that down the stem as long as you need, then cut it off

Take the long strip you just cut off and wrap it around your fingers

This causes the pithy woody part to break into pieces which you can then peel away, leaving behind the flexible fibrous part

After working the fibers in your fingers for a bit, they are ready for use as cordage

The next useful part of the palmetto frond is the fanlike leaves. In both the Sabal Palm and the Saw Palmetto, these contain fibers that can be twisted into string. This cordage tends to be stronger than that made from the frond stems.

Each long section of these leaves will peel apart

Cut off each piece

Then peel it into strips about 1/8 inch wide

These strips will be twisted into cordage

Hold two of these strips side by side. Now, you will take the strip that is nearest to you, twist it away from you until it is tight, then wrap it under the other strip. Keep repeating this process. As you twist and wrap, you will form a little segment of cordage.

When one of your strips has only a couple inches left, take another strip, lay the end alongside the short one, and twist them together. Then continue twisting and wrapping. The new segment will be tightly spliced in.

When your cordage reaches the length that you need, tie a knot in each end so it doesn’t unravel. It’s then ready for use.

The final portion of the palmetto frond that can be used for cordage are the long loose fibers that poke out of the leaves and hang down. These look like strands of hair or fishing line. They can be twisted into a strong cordage.

These light-colored fibers from the palmetto leaves are what you want. Keep the fresh ones that are tough to pull off, and reject the decaying ones that break easily.

Gathering a bunch of fibers

Now separate your fibers into two bundles, hold them together, and “twist and wrap” 

The finished string

The Tocobaga also made a strong cordage from the fibers found inside the pounded stems of Milkweed and Nettle plants (the woody interior part must then be removed). Natives also made an extremely strong cord, for bowstrings, by cutting a long thin strip of wet stretched rawhide and twisting it tightly while it dried.


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