67-County Alabama Garden Party: Autauga County

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(Left) The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (Right) Autauga County – Stuffed, “Pepper People Eaters”

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.

Autauga County

“Feed me. Feed ME. FEED ME!!” That’s the chant of the man-eating plant in the hit musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” Want me to feed you some more lyrics? “Come on, Seymour, don’t be a putz. Trust me and your life will surely rival King Tut’s. Take some initiative, work up the guts and you’ll git it.”

YIKES! AUTAUGA COUNTY, ALABAMA HAS ANIMAL-EATING PLANTS!! Rare, Alabama Canebrake Pitcher Plants are native to the wet, sandy bogs in this central part of the state. Though ghostly beautiful and seductively fragrant, inside its slime green, tube-like leaf, which is covered with blood red veins, waits a deadly surprise.

Unsuspecting insects slide into the plant’s slippery “pitfall trap.” Then, they are drowned in nectar and devoured by the prehistoric, digestive ooze. If you cut open these hungry, Autauga County botanic wonders, you can find the dead remains of bugs these plants-of-prey have happily killed and savored.

Alabama is one of the most botanically diverse states in the U.S., fifth in total biodiversity and no. 1 in pitcher plants and college football. In the 1990s, there were 28 pitcher plant sites in this part of the state, but now there are only 11. The increasing scarcity of Alabama Canebrake Pitcher Plant is attributed to manmade construction, livestock grazing and commercial pine plantations. Another problem is the lack of naturally occurring fires. Pitcher plants want to always have their bottoms wet but they also want direct sunlight. Useful fire is needed to control rampant shade tree growth.

Autauga County is helping to preserve this rare flora with the 400-acre Roberta Case Preserve created by partnering with the national nonprofit Nature Conservancy. Also, the Boy Scouts of America own a site here with a large population of native pitcher plants. Furthermore, future-thinking local plantspeople have arranged for the Atlanta Botanical Garden to propagate some of these Alabama natives for conservation projects.

The pitcher plants in Autauga County are not even the scariest specimens in our hugely biodiverse state. WARNING: THESE COMMON PLANTS IN ALABAMA CAN KILL YOU:

–AZALEAS- Beautiful blooms and very popular in landscapes, but all parts of this plant are poisonous.

–BLUE TULIPS- The bulbs can be lethal if eaten.

–BOXWOOD- Leaves and stems are poisonous.

–ELEPHANT EARS-All parts can be deadly.

–MISTLETOE-All parts are poisonous, but especially the berries.

–RAW ACORNS- Golden and pretty, but poisonous

–TOMATO LEAVES- Enjoy the fruit, but avoid the toxic leaves.

–WILD HYDRANGEA- Alabama’s official state wildflower has many poisonous parts.

(Note: Many plants are poisonous to dogs including most flower bulbs. Cats love to chew and climb, but they should not be allowed near chrysanthemums, daisies, English ivy, peace lilies or marijuana plants.)

Every library in our state should have a copy of “Poisonous Plants and Venomous Animals of Alabama and Adjoining States,” by Whit Gibbons, Robert R. Haynes and Joab L. Thomas.

ALABAMA POISON CENTER (1-800-222-1222) can help you with concerns about poisonous plants. Also, each of the 67 counties in our state has a local office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System to help with all your plant concerns. In Autauga County, the Extension Coordinator is Darrue Stewart (334-361-7273). The office is located at 2226 Alabama Highway 14, Autaugaville, AL 36003.

It’s fun to be plant explorers and learn about animal-eating plants growing wild in Alabama. And, it’s also helpful to know plants that people should not eat. But now, let’s celebrate all the positive and pleasurable ways PLANTS + PEOPLE intersect in Autauga County. Here are some “must dos” on The 67-County, Alabama Garden Party tour, including a fun and yummy recipe inspired by the man-eating plant, Audrey II, in “Little Shop of Horrors,” AUTAUGA COUNTY STUFFED, “PEPPER PEOPLE-EATERS”:

*AUTAUGA COUNTY FARMERS MARKET—(Prattville) 332 Doster Road, across from Gillespie Senior Center; open Saturdays 7 a.m.-noon, June 1-Aug 31

*STRAWBERRIES/PEACHES—Autauga Hills Farms, 152 County Road 27, Prattville, AL 36067; also new potatoes, peas, squash; June 1-Aug 1

*FIGS/POMEGRANATES/LOCAL HONEY—Melina Hills Farms, 3462 U.S. Highway 82 West, Billingsley, AL 36006; 205-280-8796; also cucumbers and peaches

*BLUEBERRIES—Mims Blueberry Farm, 704 Blueberry Hill Road, Prattville, AL 36067; 334-361-3187, June 1-July 4 daylight until dark

*PEARS/APPLES without pesticides—N.T. Christian Farm, 249 County Road 68 East, Deatsville, AL 36022; 334-717-0419; also eggs from pasture-raised chickens, chestnuts, handmade soaps

*KENDRICK FARMS MARKET AND CAFE—(Prattville); This is a farmers market and café with a focus on field-to-fork and pluck-to-plate; if you’re a plant tourist looking for a “haycation” this is a great, Alabama find; www.kendrickfarmmarket.com

*THE SUNFLOWER FIELD—(Autaugaville)—This Instagram-ready, picture-perfect place is plant gold for every Vincent van Gogh wannabe painter or photographer; buy some long-stemmed beauties to take home and enjoy these joy-filled blossoms while saving the sunflower seeds for the birds; The Sunflower Field also sells fresh Autauga County fruits and vegetables.

*PUMPKIN PATCH—Check out the Facebook page for Autauga Adventures, 1503 Montauga Road, Prattville, AL 36067.

*COTTON GIN FACTORY—Autauga County is located in the Fall Line Hills region of Alabama where the rolling terrain slopes downward creating a natural “fall line” of waterfalls and rapids. This is perfect geology for industrialists to power their factories. Visionary businessman, Daniel Pratt, built a quaint, New England-style factory town on Autauga Creek and manufactured pre-fabricated cotton gins in the mid-19th century which were shipped throughout the U.S. as well as to Russia and South America. This beautifully preserved, charming, historic area is where Autauga County Extension Coordinator Darrue Stewart said she takes visitors to enjoy the landscape; this is a splendid place for photographs and picnics.

*PRATTAUGAN MUSEUM AND ARCHIVES—will take you back through 200 years of area history (Autauga County was established Nov. 11, 1818, pre-statehood as part of the Alabama Territory); here you’ll find repeated reminders of the importance of plants to this part of Alabama from 19th century cotton fields to 20th century peach orchards to 21st century, return-to-the-earth organic gardening.

*ROBERT TRENT JONES GOLF TRAIL- Capitol Hill (Prattville) is the only stop on this popular golfing adventure trail to have three championship courses; it has 1,500 acres of landscaped greens, picturesque cypress swamps and rolling hills for hiking and playing.

*PLANTING AN IDEA—Autauga County gets my vote for a perfect place to create The Great American Carnivorous Plant Festival/Nursery/Museum. Many of those thousands of carloads of curious folks who travel through this part of Alabama any given day on Interstate 65 need a reason to exit and enjoy some unique plant tourism. Autauga County is the natural habitat for rare Canebrake Pitcher Plants, and some enterprising individual or group could easily-but-carefully import spikey Venus Fly Traps, pucker-mouthed, Purple Cephalotus, Pink Sundews that look like cute, little reindeer antlers and deceptively innocent-looking Yellow Bladderworts, all carnivores to add to a “spooky, intriguing garden.” Money for building a carnivorous plant museum could be raised by local show people performing “Little Shop of Horrors” annually.  Can I get a second for this motion and a “FEED ME”?

Y’ALL COME to Autauga County on your 67- County, Alabama Garden Party tour! We promise you’ll eat delicious plants and maybe not get eaten by them.

Many thanks to Darrue Stewart and Natalie Rimel with the Autauga County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System for all the plant knowledge and local resources. Also, thank you, Laurie Johnson, for the delicious and adorable “FEED ME” stuffed bell peppers recipe. Those tasty peppers would be a nice addition to the already delectable menu at Kendrick Farms and totally on-target when local entertainers produce “Little Shop of Horrors” as a fundraiser for the carnivorous plant museum.

Autauga County – Stuffed, “Pepper People Eaters” (4 servings)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb. ground beef, turkey or Italian sausage
  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • 4 green bell peppers – slice off tops and remove seeds and excess white membrane from the inside
  • 2 red bell peppers – cut off tops, remove seeds and membrane from inside.  Slice off at least 4 ½-inch rings and chop the rest.
  • 1 small, sweet onion – chopped
  • 1 tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1 fresh garden tomato – diced
  • ¼ cup small pasta – like orzo, or use alphabets if you want your people eater to communicate!
  • 1 – 24 oz. jar of tomato basil marinara sauce (or make your own)
  • Slivered almonds
  • Seasonings – (About 1/8 tsp. each – more of fresh herbs if using) Minced fresh and/or dried Italian seasonings (basil, thyme, parsley, oregano), salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes
  • Shredded cheese (optional)- your choice of parmesan, mozzarella, cheddar or a combination

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400F.
  2. Cook and drain small pasta as directed, but leave slightly firm.
  3. After prepping vegetables, brown ground meat, adding a little oil if it is very lean.
  4. Remove meat from pan and sauté chopped red bell peppers and onions in rendered grease until slightly softened – add extra oil if needed.
  5. Add garlic, diced tomatoes and about half of the seasonings and sauté for another approximately 4 minutes.
  6. Return browned meat to the pan and stir in cooked pasta, 3 tbsp. almonds and half of the marinara.  Stir and simmer for a few more minutes until mixed and hot. Adjust seasonings to your taste.
  7. Spoon meat mixture into prepared green peppers to about ¼ inch of the top and place one red bell pepper ring in each, nestled and pressed inside of the green pepper (cut it as needed to make it fit).  Put another spoon of stuffing inside the red ring. 
  8. Place people eaters into a roasting pan with a half inch of water in the bottom.  Top with a drizzle of oil, cover with foil and bake for a total of 45 minutes or until peppers are soft.  About 35 minutes into baking, uncover and top with cheese (if using) and finish baking uncovered.
  9. To plate these carnivores, top with a dollop of warmed marinara, drizzle some down the sides and add extra alphabet pasta words and almond “teeth” so they can talk AND chomp!
  10. Serve with remaining warmed marina and garnish with fresh basil.

 

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

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Ben South