The Alabama honeysuckle border 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.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the theater. Imagine a play with the working title: “THRIVE: Alabama Women Growing Alabama.” Although I’ve created works with female characters, this all-female production should be written by a woman, a fellow Alabamian. I’m only presenting the idea, and we’ll see how some nurturing, visionary female transplants it to the stage.
The setting is the side porch of the Alabama Governor’s Mansion looking out at the lush lawn and gardens. Six women who have lived in or currently live in Montgomery County have gathered for a lively garden party. The table is decorated with camellias, our Alabama state flower. The women share laughter, memories, ideas and hopes for Alabama’s future. As we Southerners do, they reveal their character through storytelling.
Early in this century, when I served the Alabama Governor’s Mansion, we created a garden for prayer and meditation in a serene, wooded area of the grounds. That could be a good setting for a second act. Alabama’s post-Bicentennial act.
Let me introduce these women and mention how they are rooted to Montgomery County, its PLANTS and PEOPLE.
VARINA DAVIS – She trailed her politician husband Jefferson Davis to Montgomery when the bustling Alabama river city became the first capital of the Confederacy. Mrs. Davis was raised in agrarian Mississippi, educated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and longed for the days her husband was in agriculture, not politics. Varina Davis was inquisitive, intelligent and a lively conversationalist. In her later years, she lived in New York City, wrote a regular column for “New York World,” and worked to bring a divided nation together.
Several years ago, I arranged for the renowned garden designer, James Cothran, author of “Gardens and Historic Plants of the Antebellum South,” to meet me at the Davis house museum in Montgomery and asked him to suggest some changes to the plantings. From Varina Davis’ letters we learned of her fondness for the peaceful fragrance of violets and Mr. Cothran’s garden design highlighted “Viola alba” along the front walk. Upstairs in the museum, ask a docent to show you the elegant perfume case Varina Davis carried when she traveled. Her preferred scents were hand-blended essences of violets and roses.
ZELDA SAYRE FITZGERALD – A native of Montgomery, Zelda was a talented writer, as was her husband, F. Scott. She was also a gifted botanical artist. The Fitzgeralds’ only child, Scottie, loved Montgomery and lived there much of her life. I had a home-cooked dinner with her once, and Scottie recalled her mother blissfully arranging cut flowers from the yard and then capturing the blossoms in watercolor paintings as the plants transitioned day after day, fresh-from-the-garden to death. Zelda’s nature lesson was there is no such thing as a still life.
The Montgomery house where Zelda and Scott lived is now the vibrant F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. It is where Mrs. Fitzgerald wrote the novel, “Save me the Waltz” and Mr. Fitzgerald penned “Tender is the Night.” You can arrange to stay overnight in two of the former bedrooms, now Airbnb suites. When you do that, help us reimagine the gardens with the cutting flowers Zelda loved.
Here are swoon-inducing, plant-oriented quotes from this romantic, Montgomery couple perfect for our play or any garden party: (Zelda to Scott) “Don’t you think I was made for you?…like a watch-charm or a buttonhole bouquet.” And, “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”)
KAY IVEY – This tough-as-hickory, charming as magnolias, Wilcox County farm girl is Alabama’s second, female governor. The setting for our play is Kay Ivey’s side porch at the Governor’s Mansion. Governor Ivey is “the farmers’ friend” and a staunch supporter of ending child hunger in our state with local, agricultural initiatives. In fact, this series of PLANTS + PEOPLE stories, “THE 67-COUNTY, ALABAMA GARDEN PARTY,” will end on Christmas Sunday, a day Governor Ivey regularly proclaims as a focus on child hunger needs.
ROSA PARKS – I can’t imagine a time-weaving gathering of thinking, acting, contributing, Montgomery women without Mrs. Parks. She helped grow a national garden of change. The determined, dignified Rosa Parks nurtured millions and encouraged us all to thrive. She treasured flowers, gardens and tending her houseplants. Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was a seamstress who loved floral fabrics. She was even named for a flower. (Rosa is the Latin name for the Rose genus.)
JAY LAMAR – Alabama is celebrating its Bicentennial this year and leading the statewide salute is Jay Lamar. Ms. Lamar knows 200 years of stories that could entertain 200 garden parties, but I imagined her at this gathering because part of her vision is about growing the future and helping Alabama thrive. Here’s a quote from Jay Lamar: “The Bicentennial is important because it is also setting the stage for Alabama’s third century. We are very much looking to the future as well.” (www.Alabama200.org)
OCTAVIA SPENCER – Recognized by the Alabama Legislature as a state treasure, this Oscar-winning actress is a self-described “Montgomery high school theater kid” and an Auburn University grad. In an interview about one of her period films, she said, “The beautiful thing about looking back at history is contemplating how we can influence the future.”
There is our cast of characters. The dialog begins with talk of how the Governor’s Mansion grounds could reflect all of Alabama, transcend politics and serve as a metaphor for us thriving together over the next 200 years. Let this Alabama Garden Party begin.
As you imagine your own Alabama Garden Party wherever you are, here are pleasurable and positive ways PLANTS + PEOPLE come together in Montgomery County:
*SWEETCREEK FARM MARKET: Working with other Alabama-grown producers, SweetCreek could cater this imagined Governor’s Mansion garden party. SweetCreek was created by Alabama legislator/entrepreneur, Reed Ingram, and his charming wife, Karen. Our garden party menu includes Alabama chicken salad, SweetCreek Honey Vinaigrette Dressing (made in house with honey from their own bee hives and bottled for sale in the shop) on Alabama strawberries, pecans and Montgomery County salad greens. For dessert, there’s a dish of naturally delicious, SweetCreek Swamp Cookies and Sweet Home Alabama Popcorn Balls, made especially for popcorn-loving Octavia Spencer, to share. (see recipe) Iced tea is hometown-brewed by The Alabama Sweet Tea Company.
*MONTGOMERY COUNTY FARMERS’ MARKETS: Eastchase Farmers’ Market (7274 Eastchase Parkway), Fairview Farmers’ Market (60 West Fairview Avenue), Montgomery Curb Market (1004 Madison Avenue; This is the place to see and be seen on Saturday mornings in the Capital City. It’s behind the state capitol building near Cramton Bowl and has been, as my Montgomery friend, Bil Hitchcock says, “Since God was a little boy.”); Nick Handey Farmstand (Handey Farm Road), State Farmers Market (1655 Federal Drive)
*MONTGOMERY COUNTY U-PICK GROWERS: Southern Growers Nursery and Greenhouse (blueberries, blackberries), St. Nicholas Farms (collards, turnips)
* MONTGOMERY COUNTY GARDEN SHOPS—Southern Homes and Gardens (plan for a good, long visit; this is a big and bodacious adventureland for gardening enthusiasts), Little Mountain Nursery, Green Thumb Nursery, Hickory Grove Nursery, Handey’s Greenhouse, Jackson’s Greenhouse, Blessed Pine (a top supplier of high-quality, pine straw mulch in Alabama)
*MONTGOMERY COUNTY MUSIC ON “THE ALABAMA GARDEN PARTY” SOUNDTRACK—“Ramblin’ Rose” by Nat King Cole, “Come in from the Rain,” by The Captain & Tennille, “Hey Good Lookin” and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” by Hank Williams
*RIVERFRONT PARK—Located on the banks of the Alabama River, this sprawling, rambling, inviting place has lots of natural, Montgomery beauty to explore; bring your camera and wear comfortable shoes; consider some leisurely time-travel on the riverboat, Harriet II.
ALABAMA COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SYSTEM—There’s an “Extension” office in each of Alabama’s 67 counties, and Montgomery has a good one; this is a great place for free gardening advice; Jimmy Smitherman, county coordinator, values “plant tourism” and connected me to SweetCreek Farm Market; ACES is how I’m exploring a “Governor’s Mansion Camellia Garden” with Auburn University; also the Montgomery Master Gardeners are a great resource sponsored by ACES www.aces.edu/counties/montgomery.
*MONTGOMERY COUNTY GARDENS—The Alabama Nature Center, Blount Cultural Park, EAT South’s Downtown Farm, Lagoon Park Trail, Shakespeare Garden and Amphitheatre (Voted “One of the Top 10 Shakespeare experiences in the U.S.”); Montgomery Botanical Garden at Oak Park
*BEST PLACES FOR A LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHER/ARTIST: Looking down leafy, green Dexter Avenue from the Alabama Capitol Dome; high atop the RSA Building, Montgomery’s tallest, toward the great sweep of the Alabama River
*BEST ALABAMA CAMELLIA PINK PAINT COLOR—Benjamin Moore “Gypsy Rose” #1327 selected by Bil Hitchcock, designer, Robert F. Henry Tile Company (Montgomery-based with six locations)
*PLANTING AN IDEA—To salute each of the 67 counties of Alabama we could plant a grove of 67 lovely and unique camellias, Alabama’s state flower family, on the Governor’s Mansion grounds. I explored this idea with an Auburn University camellia expert who said he would volunteer to identify 67 varieties that would thrive in Montgomery County. This could create a beautiful and bountiful bouquet for our Alabama Bicentennial.
Y’ALL COME to Montgomery County on your Alabama Garden Party tour. This is an important and delightful place to celebrate the positive and pleasurable ways PLANTS + PEOPLE come together and THRIVE. Right, ladies?
Many thanks to Alaina Deton (The Fitzgerald Museum), Karen and Reed Ingram (SweetCreek Farm Market), Jimmy Smitherman (Montgomery County coordinator, Alabama Cooperative Extension System) and Montgomery hospitality ambassador, Bil Hitchcock (Robert F. Henry Tile Company).
SWEET HOME ALABAMA POPCORN BALLS
This fun, easy, two-ingredient sweet treat was created especially for Alabama’s popcorn-loving, Oscar-winning sweetheart, Octavia Spencer.
- ¼ cup SweetCreek Farm Market Honey
- 6 cups popped popcorn (Alabama-grown, Heart Of Dixie)
- Place popped popcorn in a large mixing bowl and set aside.
- Heat honey in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until it reaches a simmer, stirring occasionally.
- Let the honey simmer for 1 minute without stirring, then remove from the heat and drizzle over the bowl of popped popcorn.
- Toss to combine until the popcorn is evenly coated.
- Transfer to the freezer and let chill about 10 minutes until the honey is cool to the touch; remove from freezer.
- Grease your hands with cooking spray and shape the coated popcorn into balls about the size of tennis balls; stick each ball with a wooden skewer or toothpick and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
- Let cool to room temperature, serve and enjoy.
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