67-County Alabama Garden Party: Etowah County

The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) Etowah County Smoky, Buttery Shingled Potatoes (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.

Etowah County

The road to success intersects with Alabama’s Hard Work Highway, which winds throughout Etowah County. The industrious women and men of “the smallest county in the state” have got to be some of the hardest-working people in the nation.

Mega-popstar Beyoncé, regularly called “the hardest working woman in show business,” has roots here. Beyonce’s visionary “star maker” father, now a Texas Southern University visiting professor of music business, Mathew Knowles, is from Gadsden. Etowah County taught him, “If you dream big, you need to work hard.”

Lilly Ledbetter, the equal rights activist, famed for inspiring the 2009 legislation the U.S. Congress passed as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, worked for years in “a man’s job” as an area supervisor at the Goodyear plant here. During the American Civil War, another heroine, Emma Samson, a local farmgirl, fearlessly leaped on the back of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s horse and bravely dodged Yankee bullets to help capture Union Colonel Abel Streight.

In Etowah County, people think “the fruit of hard work is the sweetest.”

Last month, I was back in Etowah County for my annual, delightful luncheon with the fun-loving but very hard-working Women’s Club of Gadsden. These ladies love a garden party and there are always some lovely hats, but they aren’t afraid to muss their hairdos and glisten a bit when it comes to bringing progress to their part of Alabama. These are bulldozing, business-savvy belles disguised as ladies-who-mostly-just-lunch.

It was an Etowah County, pluperfect fall day. The garden party menu included tasty nasturtium blossoms on the salad. Plant-lovers will appreciate knowing the word “Etowah” is Cherokee for “edible tree.” (According to a research assistant at the Gadsden Public Library, the “Etowah” plant was likely a native persimmon.)

After lunch, I drove to one of Alabama’s grandest parks at Noccalula Falls to stroll the leafy paths and refresh my memory of the dramatic, forested ravine.  I shouldn’t have been surprised at all that on the walkway was a plaque almost 100 years old that attributed the creation of this gorgeous park to the hard-working Women’s Club of Gadsden.

Public gardens and one’s own plot are regularly a lot of work even in a place like Etowah County with a mild climate, good soil and plenty of rainfall. So, at this stop on the 67-County, Alabama Garden Party tour, I want to honor these hard-working folks by suggesting some plants that are easier to care for, attractive much of the year and are more disease- and pest-resistant. Kick off your muddy work boots and sit a spell.


Most of these selections are from notes I scribbled recently during a Master Gardeners talk given by noted Alabama plantsman Tony Glover on “30 Underused or Just Outstanding Woody Landscape Plants for Alabama Gardens.”  You should also consider easy-care culinary herbs (thyme, rosemary, chives, mint), many succulents, pansies, begonias, coreopsis, Black-Eyed Susans and coneflowers. Just because some garden task is a lot of work doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth your doing. Here are suggestions from the lecture:

  • BOTTLEBRUSH BUCKEYE- Grow to 10-15 feet, good shade and hummingbirds love them
  • BLACK GUM/BLACK TUPELO- Beautiful fall color, birds love
  • SOUTHERN SUGAR MAPLE- Also called Florida Maple, can take the heat
  • YELLOWWOOD- Fragrant spring blossoms; easily pruned to a single trunk
  • AMERICAN HORNBEAM/MUSCLEWOOD- Great street tree, grows to 25-35 feet
  • SOURWOOD- Great for bee honey, plant in part shade
  • DECIDUOUS AZALEA- Very fragrant bush, lots of colors
  • DWARF FOTHERGILLA- Native, multi-season, white blooms in April, want some shade
  • INKBERRY/GALLBERRY- Great, evergreen undergrowth for wooded areas, good substitute for boxwood (Strongbox)
  • VIRGINIA SWEETSPIRE- Multiple seasons, great fall red color
  • DOUBLEFILE VIBURNUM- Smaller snowball, dogwood like, “Opening Day” is a good variety
  • PERSIAN IRONWOOD- Native of Iran but does well here, pretty multi-trunk
  • WITCH HAZEL- Arnold’s Promise is a good choice.
  • CAROLINA SILVERBELL- Small tree/shrub with bell-shaped white blossoms in April/May
  • CLIMBING HYDRANGEA- Small, fragrant blossoms
  • RABBITEYE BLUEBERRY- ORNAMENTAL and EDIBLE, birds love them, also called “Farkleberry”
  • FIGS- Not native, but every Alabama homeowner needs a fig tree, “Little Miss Figgy” is a great dwarf fig, birds love them; also consider Brown Turkey and Celeste
  • AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY- Great for cutting flower arrangements
  • CHINESE GRANCY GREYBEARD (aka Chinese Fringetree)- Truly BEAUTIFUL blossoms
  • FLORIDA ANISE- Shade-loving evergreen, great for bird cover
  • SASANQUA camellia- Good hedge plant, grow well throughout Alabama, bloom in Fall
  • TRUMPET HONEYSUCKLE- The only native honeysuckle in north Alabama, hummingbirds love this sweet vine
  • BALD CYPRESS/POND CYPRESS- “Great plant” per Tony Glover, grandly tall, good fall color, can grow in the water
  • DISTYLIUM- Tough, low-growing evergreen
  • DWARF PALMETTO- Native Alabama palm
  • CHASTE TREE- Perfect anchor for a “pollinator garden” which Alabama needs in every county; grow 15-20 feet
  • FRAGRANT TEA OLIVE- Osmanthus fragrans, good screening, intensely aromatic small blooms, 15 feet, every Alabama homeowner needs one in their yard for the pleasure it delivers
  • SMOOTH HYDRANGEA or WILD HYDRANGEA- Consider “Halo Hydrangea,” a real beauty
  • LOROPETALUM- Can be dwarf or tree size, beautiful leaves
  • CHINESE PISTACIA- Tough, hard-working beauty (think of the Women’s Club of Gadsden), brilliant orange, fall colors

Here are other positive and pleasurable PLANTS + PEOPLE things to relax and enjoy in Etowah County including our salute to POTATOES: THE HARDEST WORKING VEGETABLE AT THE FARMERS’ MARKET:

*ALTOONA FARMERS’ MARKET- 3338 Main St., Altoona, AL 35952; Wednesdays 3-6 p.m., Fridays 8:30 a.m.-noon, June-October

*ATTALLA DOWNTOWN FARMERS’ MARKET- Third Street Northwest (Highway 11) and Highway 431 intersection, Attalla, AL 35594; Thursdays noon-6 p.m., May-October

*GADSDEN FARMERS’ MARKET-439 Locust Street, Gadsden, AL 35901; Fridays 7 a.m.-noon, May 24-Oct. 25

*GLENCOE FARMERS’ MARKET-City Hall, 201 West Chastain Blvd., Glencoe, AL 35905; Tuesdays 7 a.m.-1p.m., June-September

*ETOWAH COUNTY U-PICK FARMERS-Gypsy Ranch (Altoona) strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, melons, beans, beets, squash; Norris Farm (Hokes Bluff) strawberries, tomatoes, pumpkins

*ETOWAH COUNTY PLANTS ADVICE/EDUCATION-Alabama Cooperative Extension System local office at Etowah County Annex Building, 3200A West Meighan Blvd., Gadsden, AL 35904, 256-547-7936

*PLANTING AN IDEA- Frequently, the gardens and garden shows I visit celebrate the most-excruciatingly difficult plants to grow. For many people, the amount of work they perceive would be required to create and maintain a garden simply outweighs the imagined reward. Etowah County would be a fitting place to host a garden show with a focus on hard-working plants that can add pleasure to Alabama gardens and don’t require a lot of coddling.  A good place to start would be the “30 hard-working plants” shared in this article.

Etowah County Smoky, Buttery Shingled Potatoes (4 servings)

Ever thought about how hard-working the potato is?  It can satisfy us by being baked, fried, mashed, hashed, pancaked, in a gratin, in a soup, as a tot and even gives us vodka!  It seems like all the other vegetables just aren’t trying hard enough. 

This recipe for shingled potatoes is similar to a Hasselback potato, a recipe developed in the 1940s at the Hasselbacken restaurant in Stockholm Sweden.  However, they are sliced all the way through and combined with leek slices and smoked paprika for a smoky flavor.  You could clearly experiment with seasonings or just go with hard-working salt and pepper.  Enjoy with a little horseradish sour cream, chopped leeks or any of your favorite potato toppings.


  • ~ 6 medium Russet or Yukon potatoes (however many it takes to fill up your skillet or dish)
  • 1 leek or a few green onions
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter – if you use salted, adjust how much extra salt you add
  • Seasonings – coarse salt, ground black pepper and smoked paprika
  • Sour cream mixed with a little prepared horseradish (optional) for serving


  1. Pre-heat oven to 400F.
  2. Wash the potatoes and dry them well.  For best results, choose potatoes that are similar in size and slice off the small ends and discard or use in another dish such as soup, hash or loaded potato skins (see how hard working!) Slice the potatoes very thin (1/8-inch slices) using a mandolin or sharp knife.  Slice the leeks thinly.  Reserve a little leek and finely chop for serving.
  3. Melt the butter in a shallow bowl or pan and coat the potato and leek slices well on all sides.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper and smoked paprika on one side.
  4. Using oil or more butter, lightly grease an oven-proof skillet or casserole dish and arrange the potato slices side to side, packing them in a circular arrangement or whatever best suits your dish.  Slide the leeks in between every few potatoes.  Reserve any remaining butter (that likely contains some salt, pepper and smoked paprika) for later. 
  5. Cover with an oven-proof lid or aluminum foil and bake for about an hour.  Remove the cover and drizzle with reserved (re-melted) butter and more seasonings if you wish and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes or until the tops are golden and the potatoes are fork tender.
  6. Serve with sour cream, with or without added horseradish, and chopped leeks.


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

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Ben South