Book excerpt: The Palmetto Book by Jono MillerHistories and Mysteries of the Cabbage Palm

Excerpted from The Palmetto Book: Histories and Mysteries of the Cabbage Palm by Jono Miller. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

Cheesecake: The Most-Photographed Cabbage Palm

In 1960, Betty Frazee was a twenty-year-old model working at a natural Florida attraction known as Silver Springs. She had been discovered four years earlier when she was a drum majorette visiting the attraction from Ocala, and she started working there the next year as a “public relations officer.” At eighteen she came in third in the Miss Florida contest. One of the prizes was a week’s vacation in Sarasota with her mother as chaperone. That didn’t prevent her from posing for illustrator Thornton Utz and pinup artist Gil Elvgren. When I interviewed Betty, she had several scrapbooks filled with press clippings.

Betty was part of a symbiotic relationship between the national press and Florida tourism promoters. Photographers and publicists provided a torrent of free publicity stills to the media -- visual chum that existed primarily to allow northeastern and midwestern readers to fantasize about vacationing in, or moving to, Florida.

Not coincidently, many of these images contained women in formfitting swimsuits: bathing beauties. Petite Betty (5 foot two inches), both blond and curvaceous, was no exception. Such publicity photos borrowed from both World War II pinups and glamour photography and were sometimes referred to as “cheesecake,” presumably because they were seen as an indulgent, guilty pleasure, and double entendre captions frequently accompanied the photos. Pioneer underwater photographer Bruce Mozert defined cheesecake as “a good-looking girl doing unusual things.” That simple formulaic juxtaposition enabled Mozert to get publicity stills for Florida’s oldest nature-based attraction, Silver Springs, placed in not only male-oriented magazines such as True, Argosy, Florida Outdoors, and Skin Diver, but also high-profile, general-audience magazines such as Life. Betty Frazee was one of his favored models and obliged Mozert by drinking Cokes underwater (an early product placement), as well as “talking to fish.” But some of the most iconic cheesecake shots ever taken at Silver Springs weren’t taken underwater.

As far as Google and eBay know, there is only one genuine Silver Springs TV Tray. Its clattering pressed-tin surface perched above its precariously scrawny wire legs features a dry-land photo taken by Mozert, and, as you might expect, it also features a cabbage palm. A brunette Silver Springs model poses in a modest yellow two-piece swimsuit standing on a sidewalk in white heels and appears to be leaning on a cabbage palm trunk that has taken a parabolic dive toward the Silver River. The famous glass-bottomed boats can be seen in the distance. The strong vertical format of this half of the image destined it to grace untold numbers of Silver Springs brochures. When one unfolds the brochure, the palm canopy appears suspended over the river.

That particular cabbage palm has been called the “lucky palm,” the “wishing palm,” and the “horseshoe palm,” and it became famous due to the intersection of two phenomena: (1) it is very distinctly contorted, and (2) it is growing on the banks of the Silver River quite close to the headspring. As a result, it has probably been a noteworthy natural feature of the tourist attraction since the equally famous glass-bottomed boats first slid across the waters in the late 1800s.

No one knows why this palm has grown in such a droopy, loopy fashion, but the theory that enables it to do so is generally understood. Imagine a team of bricklayers building a cylindrical chimney. If the workers on one side add more bricks, or add larger bricks, or add bricks faster, the chimney will start to veer to the other side. A palm trunk is a cylinder made of cells, and if cells are increased disproportionately on one side, the tree will bend away from that side. That all seems quite understandable when a palm finds itself partially shaded and takes evasive action to seek more sunlight. A plant’s ability to grow toward light is known as a positive phototropism, and it is one of two ways plants cope with being shaded. Plants with multiple shoots or twigs can appear to grow toward light when the shaded twigs decline and die and the sunnier shoots proliferate. But a cabbage palm with only one growing bud does not have that luxury. The entire plant must do what it can to seek sunlight. Yet this palm’s wandering ways are inexplicable, and its erratic novelty and high-profile location have made it the most-photographed cabbage palm in the world -- appearing in both publicity stills and tourist snapshots for decades.

Comparable palms can be found elsewhere. There’s another palm at Silver Springs called the “corkscrew palm,” and the competing attraction Cypress Gardens boasted another “wishing palm” -- a nearly horizontal queen palm that provided a perch for full-skirted southern belles to rest upon. In reality, it is not hard to find distorted cabbage palms in any palm hammock, but none has had the exposure of the horseshoe palm at Silver Springs.

Yet the TV tray/brochure image is not the most iconic and unusual image taken at Silver Springs. That distinction belongs to a photo of Betty actually perched on the tree inches above the river. She holds a beach ball and appears to be comfortable, if not actually languishing, in the curves of the palm -- truly a good-looking girl doing something unusual. The horizontal format became a popular postcard that simultaneously featured an exotic and contorted tropical palm, a beckoning bathing beauty, and the Silver Springs attraction.

One has to ask how a palm trunk the diameter of a dinner plate can support even a petite model without breaking. Other postcards reveal a post emerging from the spring run that is supporting the palm. Many historic publicity shots of the palm use creative angles and cropping to conceal this crutch.

At some point, the horseshoe palm was hoisted up and given its own deck that extends out over the spring run. The palm seems safer and is far more accessible, and the wooden deck has become a popular spot for what was once called a “Kodak moment.”

Silver Springs, however, is wobbling. It started as a simple natural attraction in the 1860s and experienced a breakthrough by utilizing glass-bottomed boats to access the wonder of the springs. But what had been a natural attraction evolved into a complex of diverse recreational opportunities that at various times included a Seminole Indian village, a rattlesnake- venom-milking Reptile Institute, Six Gun Territory, wild (escaped) monkeys, an Early American Museum, Jeep Safari, the Prince of Peace Park, an albino alligator exhibit, an antique and race car museum, Paradise Park, and a zoo with a lonely giraffe. “Paradise Park” was a Jim Crow–era portion of Silver Springs (“for colored people”) that from 1949 to 1969 allowed the Black community limited access to the attraction.

Today the giraffe has died, the water is contaminated with nutrients, and the flow has declined dramatically. Most of the ancillary attractions are gone. The fates of both the natural springs and the attraction are being debated. But the lucky/horseshoe/wishing palm remains, its tortuous convolutions mimicking the attraction’s erratic path.

To purchase this and other books about Florida, visit the University Press of Florida.

Jono Miller is an alum and the former co-director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College in Sarasota. An educator, activist, and natural historian, Miller has worked to understand and protect wild places in Southwest Florida for 50 years. His book looks at the natural and cultural history of the iconic palmetto plant, also known as the cabbage palm or Sabal palmetto, which is found in the southeastern American landscape (and is the state tree of Florida and South Carolina). Read more on the New College website.
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