By Abby Weingarten
New College alum Jono Miller ’70, former co-director of the Environmental Studies Program, is set to publish The Palmetto Book: Histories and Mysteries of the Cabbage Palm (University Press of Florida) on March 16.
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).
“This book has been 10 years in the making, but I’ve been generally interested in the outdoors and natural history my whole life,” Miller said. “I wrote the book with a desire to have people better understand this tree. The book tries to shows all of the different aspects of this tree and how it has affected our culture—from the time of the Revolutionary War to now.”
In the book, Miller dispels common myths about the often-misunderstood native plant. He answers questions such as: Are palms trees? Where did they grow historically? When should palmettos be pruned? What is swamp cabbage and how do you prepare it? Did Winslow Homer’s watercolors of palmettos inadvertently document rising sea level? And how can these plants be both flammable and fireproof?
“Most of what you learn about a plant on a nature walk are maybe three things about that plant. I call it ‘speed-dating the environment,’ and my book is really an argument against that,” Miller said. “I’m encouraging people to take the time and get to know a lot more than a few things about this plant. It’s really a much broader look at the plant, and both how it functions in the natural system as well as how humans interact with it.”
Using historical research, Miller argues that cabbage palms can live for more than two centuries. He explains that the palmettos that were used to build Fort Moultrie at the start of the Revolutionary War thwarted a British attack on Charleston, and ended up on South Carolina’s flag.
Miller describes the anatomy of palm fronds and their crisscrossed leaf bases, called bootjacks. He traces the underground “saxophone” structure of the young plant’s root system. He explores the importance of palmettos for many wildlife species, including Florida scrub-jays and honeybees. He also documents how palmettos can pose problems for native habitats, citrus groves and home landscapes.
“Written with passion and purpose, The Palmetto Book represents a lifetime of research and a model of scholarship,” wrote Gary R. Mormino, author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida (University Press of Florida, August 2008). “This book is about Florida, Floridians and our relationship with a fascinating plant. Jono Miller is the Sunshine State’s palm whisperer.”
Though The Palmetto Book will not be officially published until March, Miller invites interested readers to preorder a copy before January 31 (and receive a 22 percent discount). Just type in the code AU121 and hit the APPLY CODE button here: upf.com/book.asp?id=9780813066806.
For more information on the book, visit palmettobook.blog
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.