67-County Alabama Garden Party: Madison County


Quilt block (left): The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. This caption will stay the same each week. Recipe (right) for Madison County Rocket Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing

The Cullman Tribune is celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial (1819-2019) with statewide field reporting by Alabama Master Gardener/Botanical Artist Ben Johnson South. This year-long feature, "The 67-County Alabama Garden Party," will spotlight different counties each week. Each county will get its own "quilt block," along with a historical profile, and we'll share a recipe specific to the area. At the end of the year, all 67 counties will be put in a book to commemorate the Bicentennial.

Madison County

“Off we go into the wild, green yonder” could have been the refrain thousands of early settlers sang as they were propelled into the vast, verdant lands of the northern part of the Alabama Territory into what is now Madison County. Imagine their delight and amazement encountering all the varieties of plants in this part of God’s green earth. Alabama ranks fifth in biodiversity among the 50 states and this part of the state is particularly diverse in plant life. Our state is home to some 4,000 different species of native plants, 28 of which grow only in Alabama.

Mostly these were farm folk coming from North Carolina and Tennessee to plant some roots, feed a family and look forward to a thriving future. My farming, gardening father was proudly Madison County-born and deeply rooted in the rolling, green foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Although my bookish dad became a philosophy professor, he retained his hardscrabble farm boy, Madison County hillbilly twang. Imagine the eloquent profundity of Aristotle with a hint of “Hee Haw.” Dad’s father was a skilled, Madison County carpenter, and his wife, my grandmother, also of Madison County, was Creek Indian. She was a descendant of Alabama natives displaced by the forced relocation known as “The Trail Of Tears.” Her resilient, Indian nation had endured a 300-mile evacuation walk through Alabama to the Old Natchez Trace.

Large cotton and corn plantations in the Antebellum Period flourished here in the fertile soil along the shores of the Tennessee River. Until the 1960s, Madison County workers were mostly agricultural, planting and harvesting crops or working in the textile mills.

Madison County, older than Alabama, and an early hub of state politics, was established in December 1818. Just six months later, in what is present-day Huntsville, in a cabinetmaker’s shop that smelled pungently of fresh, local-cut cedar and pine, 44 men gathered to write Alabama’s first constitution, which they signed on Monday, July 5, 1819. The original Alabama Constitution was handwritten using iron-gall ink on 26 pages of parchment. Within the month, a Madison County newspaperman, John Boardman of The Alabama Republican, printed the first paper copies of the Alabama Constitution to share throughout the territory. The paper was from native trees and the ink he used was a plant base of linseed oil darkened with charred wood soot. Madison County is called “The Birthplace Of Alabama.” (As we celebrate the Alabama Bicentennial this year, Huntsville will be the only location other than the Alabama Archives in Montgomery to host a showing of the original, state constitution and all six, subsequent ones. Come enjoy the cool, tree-lined shade of Alabama’s Constitution Village, an open-air history museum, during this special showing from June 30-Aug. 11.  www.earlyworks.com)

THINKING UP creatively with positivity comes naturally to this part of Alabama. In the late 19th century, one of America’s finest health resorts was created up on densely forested Monte Sano (Spanish for “Mountain of Health”) Mountain. An elegant, 223-room hotel built of native timber went up to welcome celebrities like the Vanderbilts and Waldorfs to Madison County for cooler temperatures, fresh air and curative spa treatments like hydrotherapy and balneotherapy.


I asked gifted Huntsville artist Amy Shackelford McBroom, for her suggestion, and she had many, but her number one was Monte Sano Mountain with its 2,140 acres of protected nature thanks to the tireless efforts of the Land Trust of North Alabama (www.landtrustnal.org). Check out the rustic cabins on Monte Sano built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Per McBroom, you’ll find, “amazing vistas, sheltering trees, bursts of wildflowers, fossils, waterfalls, fall leaves, pinecones and an unobstructed view of the stars…For artists, the plethora and intricacies of nature overwhelm: the endless patterns, colors, textures and composition of life.” McBroom is a Southern painter who most recently exhibited at the Wiregrass Museum in Dothan. She is the president of the Alabama Women’s Caucus For Art. In Madison County, her joy-filled works are at Lowe Mill, the popular arts and entertainment complex in a reimagined, cotton textile mill. (Second Floor HAL Gallery, www.lowemill.net)

“Off we go into the wild, blue yonder” and beyond to the moon as Madison County escorted the USA to the moon. Locals speak of time as “Pre-vB,” before von Braun, and “Post-vB.” Dr. Wernher von Braun and a team of fellow scientists immigrated from Germany to the county in the 1960s to help the country win the “Space Race.” The Saturn V rocket which powered the first trip to the moon was thought up and created here. When you visit the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Alabama’s most-popular tourist destination, ask your friendly, informative guides to tell you how PLANTS + PEOPLE connected so astronauts could have healthy nutrition in space and enjoy the calm that plant life could bring them even in a spaceship hundreds of miles away from native soil. (www.rocketcenter.com)

Madison County has more public gardens, farmers’ markets, nurseries, plant-centric chefs and other pleasurable PLANTS + PEOPLE delights than I can possibly mention in one article, but here are some and links to more. Also, enjoy a healthy, tasty MADISON COUNTY ROCKET SALAD  and think up your own visit to this green haven.

–HERB and TERRY LEWIS ALABAMA BIRD GARDEN—this Huntsville “backyard birder” habitat is gaining national recognition; check out Mr. Lewis’ astounding, avian photography and arrange a visit by linking to the eyeball-alluring website created by the Lewises’ son. It’s a great example of an Alabama family working together to add beauty, knowledge and pleasure to our universe. www.creativebirding.com

–HUNTSVILLE BOTANICAL GARDEN—check out its beautiful website and plan a trip among a variety of gardens from those with a single-plant focus like the Holmes Trillium Garden to those with broad interest like the large and smile-inducing Children’s Garden; this is one of the most imaginative places in Alabama to view the pleasure of PLANTS + PEOPLE www.hsvbg.org

–BURRITT ON THE MOUNTAIN—“The Jewel on the Mountain” house museum and open-air history museum overlooking metropolitan Huntsville www.burritonthemountain.com

–MADISON COUNTY FARMERS’ MARKETS: a full list with contact info is at fma.alabama.gov for Bailey Cove Farmers’ Market, Greene Street At Nativity, Healthworks Farmers’ Market (Huntsville Hospital), Latham, Madison City Farmers’ Market, Madison County Farmers’ Market, Providence, Meridianville, Winchester Road

–MADISON COUNTY U-PICK FARMS: Browns Farm for berries and hanging flower baskets; Harvest Farm, J. Sparks Farm for honeydew melons, cucumbers, lots more; Mary Mac Berry Farm, The Boyd Family Farm, Turner Farms for okra, collards, cantaloupe and much more

–LOCAL, “MOM & POP” NURSERIES: Bennett Nurseries (will thrill every plant lover), Reseda Nursery and Stone Yard (Madison City), The Greenery (Brownsboro), Brooks & Collier, The Catbird Seat Garden Center (Madison City), Riverton Nursery (New Market), Two Ponds Nursery (Harvest), Goodwin Seed & Feed (Gurley)

–MADISON COUNTY PUBLIC PARKS: Big Spring International Park, Mountain Mist Trail, McKay Hollow Trail, Blevins Gap, Southside Park, Lost Sink Falls, Keel Mountains, Indian Creek Greenway, Fern Bell Park, Big Cove Creek Greenway, Rainbow Mountain Trail, Knox Creek Park, Wade Mountain Nature Preserve, Haunted Cemetery Playground, Mars Climbing Wall, Flint River Kayaking, Aldridge Creek, Greenway

–PLANTING AN IDEA: Madison County would be a perfect setting for a locals-thrilling, tourist-worthy American Moongarden; such loved gardens are typically a mix of plants with white blossoms like gardenias and moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) to beautifully reflect the evening moon, night-blooming plants like certain jasmines, and plants appreciated even more for their fragrance than for their looks—this could be a repurposing of a vacant lot or a newly designed area of an existing, public garden. The world-famous “White Garden” at Sissinghurst (England) could be infinitely inspiring of this idea which could be readily adapted for Alabama native plants and others chosen for Madison County’s four seasons. Innovative landscape designers could THINK UP planting schemes punctuated with: white verbena, green nicotiana, hosta crispula, white pea, “white wing” roses, white snapdragons, salvia argentea, artemisia “powis castle” shamrocks, wonderful looking and wonderfully fragrant white flowers to the moon and back. www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Y’ALL COME to Madison County, “the Birthplace Of Alabama” on your “67-COUNTY, ALABAMA GARDEN PARTY” tour. It’s where our state’s constitution was written and a splendid place to celebrate Alabama PLANTS + PEOPLE.

Many thanks to Christy Mendoza, food safety and quality regional agent of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System for her tasty, nutritious and place-perfect recipe, MADISON COUNTY ROCKET SALAD. Also, a huge THANK YOU to Georgia Ann Hudson, communication coordinator, Alabama Department of Archives and History, who was a superb resource for information related to the original Constitution of Alabama and the 2019 statewide celebration of this important historical document and related papers.



–Provided by Christy Mendoza, food safety and quality regional agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Serves 4

Rocket Salad ingredients:

6 ounces (7-8 cups) rocket (arugula) lettuce

6 slices Alabama bacon

4 satsumas or tangerines, peeled, separated, seeded

4 ounces Belle Chevre Montrachet-style goat cheese

½ cup Alabama pecans, chopped

Cook bacon and save bacon grease in pan. Wash produce. Peel, separate and remove seeds in satsumas. Add rocket lettuce and satsuma pieces to a medium-sized bowl. Crumble the bacon into the salad bowl. Crumble the cheese into the salad bowl. Add chopped pecans. Mix all salad ingredients. Just before serving, add hot dressing and toss.

Dressing Ingredients:

2 tbsp. bacon grease

¼ diced onion

2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

2 tsp. local, Alabama honey

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. dry mustard

Pinch black pepper

Fry diced onion in the bacon grease until tender. Be careful not to burn. Mix vinegar, honey, salt, mustard and pepper. Add bacon grease and onion. Mix well (shake it in a small, lidded canning jar). Drizzle over salad while still warm and serve immediately.


Also, check out Alabama Bicentennial: 200 ways to save Alabama for the next 200 years.


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