67-County Alabama Garden Party: Russell County

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The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) Russell County Grilled Fresh Fig Salad with Pomegranate (right)

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.

Russell County

The easternmost point in Alabama is in Russell County about 8 miles southeast of Fort Mitchell on the Georgia border. The county was established in December 1832, carved out of former Creek Indian territory.

It is fitting that we are in east Alabama as we celebrate figs on our progressive garden party. Fig trees (Ficus carica), common figs come from the east as an Asian species of flowering plant in the mulberry family. Figs are native to the Middle East but have become a naturalized resident in all 67 counties of Alabama.

Recently, in a Master Gardeners presentation, our Alabama Cooperative Extension System speaker suggested every homeowner in the state needed to have at least one fig tree. Figs grow wild in sunny, dry locations with deep, fresh soil and in rocky areas. Since we are experiencing climate warming, it is good to have fruit-bearing trees like figs which tolerate seasonal drought.

Figs are ancient, dating to 9000 B.C. in the Jordan Valley north of Jericho. Hispanic missionaries first brought figs to North America.

Some find figs sinfully delicious. In the Genesis story of the Christian Bible, Adam and Eve cover their privates with fig leaves after eating the “forbidden fruit” (possibly a Persian peach) from the “Tree of Knowledge.” Also, Jesus of Nazareth, the savior from the New Testament (Matthew 21: 18-22 and Mark 11: 12-21) encounters a fig tree when he is hungry, and the tree has many leaves, but no figs. Jesus throws a curse on the tree and causes it to wither and die.

Here’s a Garden of Eden tale that would be good to share in the shade of a Russell County fig tree:

Adam is in the garden when he finds himself quite lonely. He calls upon God and asks Him, “Lord almighty, may you find me company here?”

God, in his infinite kindness, responds, “Of course, my child, I shall create a being to accompany you. The being will be beautiful, intelligent, caring, calm and loving. The being shall satisfy you in every way and you two shall find love and be truly happy with one another forever.

Ecstatic, Adam says, “Thank you, Lord! What will it cost me?”

God replies, “An arm and a leg.”

Adam ponders for a minute and replies, “Lord, what can I get for a rib?”

In the Buddhist religion, the Buddha achieves enlightenment while sitting in the shade of the Bodhi tree, a large and old, sacred fig tree (Ficus religiosa).

The Muslim Qur’an also has the prophet Muhammad praising fig trees and offering medical advice: “If I had to mention a fruit that descended from paradise, I would say this (the fig) is it because the paradisiacal fruits do not have pits…eat from these fruits for they prevent hemorrhoids, prevent piles and help gout.”

“Each man under his own vine and fig tree,” (Micah 4:4) was quoted by George Washington and remained a popular phrase in American political rhetoric to denote the optimistic promise of peace and prosperity.

Most of us have had some bad dates, but there is no such thing as a bad fig. In Alabama, growing these fig trees was suggested to Master Gardeners by Alabama Cooperative Extension System Coordinator Tony Glover in his popular talk, “30 Good and Outstanding Plants to Grow in Alabama:”

  • BROWN TURKEY (aka California Brown Turkey, San Pedro, San Piero; brown or amber color, average to large-sized fruits, few seeds and best when fresh, perfect for the grilled fig salad recipe we’re sharing
  • CELESTE (aka Blue Celeste, Celeste Violette, Celestial, Malta, Sugar Fig, Violette; strawberry-brown color, small to average-sized, ideal for canning fig preserves; fruits resist splitting and souring
  • LSU PURPLE (red-purple color; developed in Louisiana and recommended for the Gulf Coast region; these closed-eye figs resist souring and the tree is vigorous and cold-tolerant

Also, Glover suggested the dwarf plant, LITTLE MISS FIGGY. I want to grow that one both to enjoy the delicious figs and have a reason to say the playful name often.

Here are other positive and pleasurable ways PLANTS + PEOPLE come together in Russell County, Alabama:

*RUSSELL COUNTY FARMERS’ MARKET- Garrett-Harrison Stadium Lot at Airport and Summerville Road Intersection, Phenix City, AL 36867; Saturdays, May-November, 8 a.m.-noon (Eastern Time), Thursdays, noon-6 p.m. (Eastern Time) May-November

*FORT MITCHELL FARMSTAND- M&J Produce, 122 McLendon Road, Fort Mitchell, AL 35856; Melvin or Jay Sherman, 706-573-8646; call to check seasonal availability.

*RUSSELL COUNTY FIGS- Thrash’s Berry Farm, 51 Thrash Road, Seale, AL 36875; 334-855-4311; June 1-August 1; also, blueberries and muscadines

*HELP THE HOOCH- A fun and meaningful, environmental event on the Chattahoochee River is the largest watershed cleanup this side of the Mississippi River; second Saturday in October

*RUSSELL COUNTY PLANTS SOURCES- Jandarella’s Garden Center; John’s Lawn and Garden

*BEST RUSSELL COUNTY SCENERY- When I asked Jennifer Davidson of the Russell County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System where she would take a landscape photographer or painter, she mentioned lots of beauty along the Chattahoochee River. Also, the Fort Mitchell Historic Site, and her very favorite view is the gorgeous waterfall at Bridgewater.

*PLANTING AN IDEA- Find out what the folks in Russell County are doing to help keep Alabama beautiful with their award-winning, “HELP THE HOOCH” cleanup initiative. Then, using their successful effort as a model, launch a similar “green” event in your neck of the woods.

Y’ALL COME to Russell County on your 67-County Alabama Garden Party tour. Let’s plan to meet about 9 a.m. any summer day and savor some gently sun-kissed figs. Or, we can meet any other season and slather scrumptious Russell County fig preserves on some cathead biscuits.

Many thanks to Jennifer Davidson of the Russell County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and to Laurie Johnson for sharing her healthy and dee-lish recipe for Russell County Grilled Fresh Fig Salad with Pomegranate.

Russell County Grilled Fresh Fig Salad with Pomegranate (4 servings)

I was fortunate to grow up in older homes, complete with established yards and gardens, planted by people we didn’t know, and that were long gone.  One such yard was blessed with five large fig trees that must have been planted generations before.  As a typical 6-year-old, I wouldn’t be caught dead EATING a fig, but LOVED harvesting them.  In fig season, my daily job was to get them off the ground before they rotted.  On weekends, I climbed the trees to pick ripe ones.  When I couldn’t reach them, I heard from my Dad below, “Girl, shake the branch.”  Our next house had its own pomegranate tree, so at 10 years old I was introduced to yet another “exotic fruit.”  Now, we can harvest pomegranates and figs at the grocery, but that was certainly not the case in the 1960s at our small-town Piggly Wiggly.  Mature yards and gardens are important.  Their plants and trees invoke connections between the people that planted them and those that follow and continue to harvest and enjoy. 

This salad blends the rustic sweetness of fresh figs with the tart crunch of pomegranate plus a punch of blue cheese, the salty crunch of toasted pecans and a light vinaigrette for a perfect garden salad.

Ingredients for salad:

  • 12 ripe fresh figs (3 per serving), black, green or whatever type you can find fresh
  • Olive oil
  • A little Turbinado sugar or white granular sugar (optional if you don’t want added sugar)
  • About 5 oz. mixed fresh baby greens like spinach, arugula or other baby lettuces
  • 4 tbsp. pomegranate kernels
  • 4 oz. blue or gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup toasted, lightly-salted Alabama pecans (See Lowndes County recipe.)
  • Whole grain baguette slices (Grill with a brush of oil before figs to check grill pan temperature.)

Ingredients for vinaigrette (can be made in advance – double or triple and kept on hand):

  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tbsp. local honey
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Make vinaigrette – mix ingredients by strongly whisking or in a blender.
  2. Grill figs – Cut off fig stems and slice in half (or thirds if they are very large).  Brush cut surface of figs with olive oil and dip cut side onto a small plate of the sugar (optional).  Brush a grill pan with oil and heat to medium.  Grill, cut side down, for 1-2 minutes until browned (time depends on size of the figs and whether you used sugar).
  3. Assemble and enjoy the salads – Lightly toss the baby greens with the vinaigrette (optional) and place a handful onto each plate.  Arrange the grilled figs over the greens and sprinkle with pomegranate kernels, toasted pecans and blue cheese crumbles. Lightly drizzle with vinaigrette and serve with grilled, whole grain bread.

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

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Ben South