The Alabama honeysuckle border (top left) was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt.
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.
Alabama is “a state within a garden.” This is an important and unique distinction from simply being a “garden state” or a “state with gardens.” Alabama is, of course, those splendid things, as well, with hundreds of diversely designed gardens from grand to gritty and intellectualized to idiosyncratic throughout our 67 counties.
From our state’s very beginning, as if some mastermind, visionary designer guided the imagination of the early settlers and land surveyors, Alabama has been bracketed by the vast, wooded, arboretum garden (trees, shrubs, vines) across our northern border and miles of sand pine, scrub forest and pristine white, sandy seaside garden at our southern border.
Alabama became “a state within a garden,” when Baldwin County was drawn as the southernmost border on Thursday, Dec. 21, 1809. This date was when the Alabama Territory legislature established Baldwin County, 10 years before statehood.
Like many youthful adventurers, I was first introduced to Baldwin County on a Rumspringa-like beach trip to Gulf Shores. The only intersections of PLANTS + PEOPLE I foggily remember from that spring weekend are the hyper-sweet, sugarcane rum drinks with pineapple chunks at The Pink Pony Pub, a legendary watering hole whose motto is “We’ve Been SURVIVING HURRICANES since 1956.”
It wasn’t until after I’d finished college, worked and traveled to France to study painting and returned that I fully came to appreciate the forested landscapes, the dreamy, watercolor marshes, the Emerald Coast seascapes and especially the sun-filled palette of colors of Baldwin County in my native Alabama, my own backyard.
The artist I’d studied most, whose work I’d aped most, whose life will probably flash before my face before I die, was the French Post-Impressionist, Henri Matisse. In a museum in Paris, I heard a taped recording of Monsieur Matisse explaining he created his juicy range of colors after visiting a market in the old fishing village of Nice, on the famed French Riviera. So, I went to Nice. Hey, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.
After sharing this I’ll probably never be hired by the French Tourism Board, but, “Honest Alabamian,” the swaying sea oats and gesso white beaches of Baldwin County are even more beautiful than the tres beautiful French Riviera. And, thank heavens, we don’t often have the landscape-sullying, wine-bloated, middle-aged nudists they do.
The markets of the Vieux Carre’ in “Old Nice” were charming. Seeing and handling the plums and melons and zucchini, I understood how Henri Matisse’s Parisian colors had become more sun-infused. I started painting with a similar range.
The following summer, I returned to Baldwin County. I stopped at a u-pick tomato patch near Bay Minette and it was like Dorothy entering Oz. The rows and rows of proud, parrot green plants were pulsing with reds: scarlet, crimson, maroon, carmine, burgundy, cardinal, viridian and cadmium. After eating two and buying 10 more, I drove farther south.
Then, I had my own color epiphany at a farm stand in Foley. The squash was vivid, saffron yellow; the eggplants glowed like amethyst jewels; the okra was rich malachite, the cantaloupes were as orange as, well, oranges; the blueberries were cobalt and indigo. Deep in Alabama, I found the juiciest, most bodacious colors in the world, the sun-blessed palette I’m still captivated by three decades later.
Here are some other pleasurable examples of how PLANTS + PEOPLE come together in Baldwin County, including a colorful, nutritious, yummy BALDWIN COUNTY GULP SHORES SMOOTHIE recipe:
- BALDWIN COUNTY FARMERS’ MARKETS and FARM STANDS—Alabama Gulf Coast Farmers’ Market (Gulf State Park, Gulf Shores), Coastal Alabama Farmers’ Market (Foley), Fairhope Outdoor Farmers’ Market (Fairhope), Ordonez Produce Farms (Fairhope), Po Boys Farm (Summerdale), Herb & Pepper Farm (Loxley) for microgreens and heirloom variety peppers
- BALDWIN COUNTY U-PICK ORCHARDS and GARDENS—Alan Norden (Silverhill), B.J. Farms (Elberta), Baldwin Blueberries (Loxley), Bee Natural (Fairhope), Broom Bush Farms (Summerdale), F.E. Little (Foley, for mayhaws, figs, blackberries), Gardner’s Berry Farm (Robertsdale), Lyrene’s Flower Farm (Fairhope), Perdido Vineyards (Perdido)
- GRAND HOTEL (Point Clear)—One of the finest examples of Southern hospitality in the world nestled in a breathtakingly gorgeous setting; the ever-elegant hotel was recently revamped for modern efficiency but retained its gracious DNA. Make reservations at the Southern Roots restaurant for imaginative, high-quality, farm-to-table dishes; plant tourists will rave about the deliciousness of locally-sourced and estate-grown ingredients. Also, enjoy the vistas seen through water oaks as you sip a garden-to-glass cocktail in the 1847 Bar. Baldwin County is one of the South’s largest growers of pecans, so even the nut dish at The Grand is local and irresistible by the handfuls. (An Alabama art note: Get ready to be dazzled by The Grand’s astonishing, multi-media artworks by international artist, Nall, an Alabama native based in Baldwin County, www.artistnall.com.)
- BALDWIN COUNTY PARKS—May Day Park (Daphne) for Spanish Moss dripping from majestic, old oaks; Bay Minette Bicentennial Park, 367 acres, 19th century, Alabama wooden church; Fairhoper’s Community Park, great music festivals and impromptu guitar strumming; Blakeley State Park (Spanish Fort) historic Civil War park highlights a battle there after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox (Alabamians are tenacious); Meaher State Park (Mobile Bay) perfect for campers; Beulah Community Park (middle of Baldwin County forested area)- go sit under a tree and lose your yourself in peaceful nature; Gulf State Park (Gulf Shores) 6,500 acres; highlights for plant enthusiasts include the Nature Center, a living museum with a focus on environmental preservation of plants and wildlife, and the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, 25 miles of biking, walking, plant-gawking pleasure.
- BON SECOUR NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE—Each year, 50,000 tourists, including many returning “snowbirds,” visit this sanctuary for native plants and wildlife; environmentally-protected areas include scrub forest, boardwalk marshes, beaches and sand dunes; of particular interest to plant tourists is the conservation of endangered flora like Gulf sea oats.
- BALDWIN COUNTY FOOD FESTIVALS—There are many to savor, so please don’t drool on your laptop as you read about them at www.GulfShores.com; Kay Maghan, a delightful and knowledgeable ambassador at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism (1-800-745-SAND) shared a long roster of lip-smacking foodie fests and I made particular note of The Wharf Uncorked (Orange Beach), pairing wines and local dishes, usually held in September, and ocean-facing Hangout Oyster Cookoff and Craft Beer Festival (Gulf Shores) the first weekend in November.
- FORT BOWYER/FORT MORGAN (head west from Gulf Shores)—Fort Bowyer, a fan-shaped fortress, was built in 1813 of local logs from this Piney Woods region and packed with native sand; in 1834 the masonry, pentagon-shaped Fort Morgan was erected on this battle site.
- BEST PERSPECTIVE FOR A LANDSCAPE ARTIST/PHOTOGRAPHER—Sunset at Weeks Bay Bog and Kurt G. Wintermeyer Nature Trail (Foley) suggested by Stephanie Crowe at Page & Palette Bookstore (Fairhope), a third-generation shop serving locals and tourists for 50 years; check the outstanding gardening and cookbook sections, also Baldwin County authors Winston Groom, Sonny Brewer and writer/plant explorer, Fred Nation. While you’re in Page & Palette, sip some Mobile, Alabama-roasted Carpe Diem coffee and enjoy made-from-scratch carrot cake from Punta Clara Kitchen (Point Clear).
- FAIRHOPE CITY BEAUTIFICATION—Recognized as one of “THE BEST ART TOWNS IN AMERICA,” Fairhope delights all the senses; note the generously planted and lovingly maintained planters and window boxes punctuating the downtown; experience the childlike joy of the giant, hand-painted murals; savor some imaginative and tasty street food as you listen to live music in the impressively landscaped parks and shaded courtyards. There are many pleasurable pairings of PLANTS + PEOPLE in this lovely, hospitable, Alabama town
- PLANTING AN IDEA—The author of “Forrest Gump,” Winston Groom, has lived in Baldwin County for many years. Everybody loves his line, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” How about teaching kids and reminding some adults that chocolate comes from a plant? Procure, plant and protect a chocolate-making cacao tree in Baldwin County? There’s a long-standing and tall-standing, 30-foot high, cacao tree in the Birmingham Botanical Garden four hours north and it’s one of the favorites on any BBG tour. Sub-tropical Baldwin County can grow a grand “chocolate tree” with Forrest Gump positivity. Maybe some of those delightful cafes and restaurants in the county could sell hot chocolate and chocolate ice cream to raise the funds for this plant purchase.
Y’ALL COME to Baldwin County on your “67-COUNTY, ALABAMA GARDEN PARTY” tour through this “state within a garden.”
For more information on PLANTS + PEOPLE in Baldwin County go to the website for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System: http://offices.aces.edu/Baldwin.
BALDWIN COUNTY GULP SHORES SMOOTHIE
A colorful, healthy, easy, beach-going treat with local berries and honey. There are even more blenders in Gulf Shores than bathing suits. Osterizer and Cuisinart should have stores here.
1 ½ cups skim milk (refrigerated)
1 tbsp. local honey
1 ½ cups Baldwin County berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries)
¾ cup vanilla Greek yogurt (refrigerated)
2 tbsp. Alabama peanut butter
Plunk all ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into two glasses. Garnish with a few fresh berries. Kick back and enjoy!
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