67-County Alabama Garden Party: Colbert County

The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) Colbert County Fragrant, Jewel Toned, Soft and Chewy, Crunchy, Tasty Jasmine Rice (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.

Colbert County

Imagine a sunlit, colorful garden where a child sees no flower color, no plant shapes nor butterflies flitting. Also, in this garden the child hears no birdsong nor crunch as he or she walks on the pea gravel paths. Yet, here in Colbert County, Alabama, in one of the most-famous garden stories in American history, there is rapturous beauty to thrill each of the senses.

Ivy Green in Tuscumbia was the childhood home of one of our nation’s greatest heroines, Helen Keller. Her inspiring story is one not merely of survival but of triumph.

Every summer for decades, in the garden, in the very place the “miracle” happened, hundreds of visitors come to enjoy the award-winning dramatic play, “The Miracle Worker.” This outdoor drama based on real events tells the story of deaf and blind young Helen connecting to the world through refreshing, Alabama well-water and nature thanks to her patient, dedicated teacher, Annie Sullivan.

“The Miracle Worker” is a multi-media cycle of 20th century dramatic works written by William Gibson and derived from Helen Keller’s acclaimed memoir, “The Story of My Life.” First written for a television broadcast in 1957, the teleplay was adapted by Gibson for Broadway and for the Oscar-winning, Hollywood movie released in 1962. The film won Best Actress for Anne Bancroft, who portrayed Annie Sullivan and Best-Supporting Actress for Patty Duke as Helen.

It was the great American storyteller, Mark Twain, who first referred to Annie Sullivan as a “miracle worker.” Mr. Twain, a respectful admirer of the teacher, Ms. Sullivan, and her student, Helen Keller, arranged for the funding for Ms. Keller’s Radcliffe College education.

The inspiring story and the extraordinary wisdom of Helen Keller come alive most in the back garden at Ivy Green. From the shaded porch, you look across the green lawn to the world’s most famous water pump. You can imagine Helen Keller saying with great conviction and positivity, “I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times, but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers.”

The elegant, modest-sized house and grounds are well maintained and look much the same as when Helen Keller lived in Colbert County at Ivy Green. Every time I’ve visited, the sun was happily beaming, and the large shade trees were hugely appreciated. But, out from under the shade, one is reminded of another life lesson from this legendary Alabamian: “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.”


Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the natural beauty and plantings at Ivy Green. This is an ideal place to consider how to engage all the senses in a garden. As I recently revisited the world Helen Keller loved at home in Colbert County, I thought about ways to delight our senses in gardens. Here, with quotes from this gifted, Alabama garden enthusiast, you’ll find plant suggestions to heighten your own sensory enjoyment:

SMELL- “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”—Helen Keller

One of my favorite plants to stick my nose in is Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus floridus). This carefree botanical has fruity, clove-like fragrance coming from the maroon-colored flowers and has been treasured by Alabamians since the early settlers. Planted in partial shade in moderately moist, acidic soil, Sweet Shrub (also called Carolina allspice or Sweet Betsy) can grow to 6 feet tall and 10 feet wide. If maroon flowers don’t seem joyful enough, there are cultivars with light yellow, fragrant blooms.

Other smell-delighting plants to consider are Bush Honeysuckles (Native Azaleas), Lemon Verbena and, as a great plantsman said when I asked his suggestions for AN ALABAMA GARDEN FOR THE FIVE SENSES, “Sweet Tea Olive is a must.”

Years ago, I was asked to create a fragrance to celebrate the gardens of President and Mrs. Andrew Jackson at their grand home, The Hermitage, outside Nashville, Tennessee. Given access to archived letters, I found a mention of “sweet lilac fragrance wafting through open windows” in a letter from the Jackson’s granddaughter. Much of Alabama is too hot for lilacs to flourish, but Colbert County reaches almost to the Tennessee line and plantings here could be swooningly heady.

Some favorite fragrant roses are Honey Perfume, Lady Emma Hamilton, Madame Alfred Carriere, Mister Lincoln, Fragrant Cloud, Souvenir de La Malmaison and Heritage.

SIGHT- “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”—Helen Keller

Ivy Green is blessed with God-made beauty, but man-made landscape design and artful plantings contribute mightily to the gardens visually. Things I thrill to see in Alabama gardens are lots of butterflies, which mean adding nectar plants, a colorful array of zinnias, goldenrod and camellias.

TOUCH- “I who cannot see find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch. I feel the delicate symmetry of a leaf. I pass my hands lovingly about the smooth skin of a silver birch, or the rough, shaggy bark of a pine…I feel the delightful, velvety texture of a flower, and discover its remarkable convolutions; and something of the miracle of Nature is revealed to me.”—Helen Keller

Touching things I associate with Ivy Green are the cool water from the pump in the back garden and also soft cotton bolls on rows farmed in Colbert County. Ms. Keller also talked of her pleasure in touching the “cold marble” of statuary.

To add tactile pleasure to an Alabama garden, consider these: feathery grasses and artemisia; fuzzy Lamb’s Ear, Dusty Miller and sage; lacy ferns and fennel; papery coneflowers and some tree bark; spiky rosemary and yuccas.

And, how about this garden note from Ms. Keller: “To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug.”

SOUND- “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.” —Helen Keller

Helen Keller loved to be with people, and she was eager for them to describe the sounds they were hearing. At Ivy Green there is birdsong year-round. I am writing this in December in north Alabama and there is a raucously happy songbird maybe 10 feet in the distance that is chirping like mid-May mating season.

Other garden sounds that are music to our ears are the percussion of “Maypops,” the crunch of pea gravel paths, the hum of bees, the gurgle of fountains, wind rustling though willows and stiff grasses.

TASTE- “Life is short and unpredictable. Eat the dessert first.”—Helen Keller

Few sensual pleasures are as delighting as eating fruits and vegetables one has grown. Some of my favorite tasting plants from Alabama gardens are figs (every homeowner in Alabama needs to have a fig tree), mint (because it’s so prolific in our part of the world, these pungent herbs are sometimes best grown in containers), satsumas (some zones may necessitate these citrus plants be grown inside), native persimmons and our “Official State Fruit”—blackberries.

As we leave the garden at Ivy Green, here’s one last inspiring quote from Helen Keller: “I can see, and that is why I can be happy in what you call the dark, but which to me is golden. I can see a God-made world, not a man-made world.”

While you are in Colbert County on your 67-County, Alabama Garden Party tour, here are other positive and pleasurable PLANTS + PEOPLE things to explore including Laurie Johnson’s original, sensory-delighting recipe for Colbert County Fragrant, Jewel-Toned, Soft and Chewy, Crunchy, Tasty Jasmine Rice.

*COLBERT COUNTY FARMERS’ MARKET- South Raleigh Avenue and South Jackson Highway, Sheffield, AL 35660; Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 6 a.m.-until; opens in June

*THE MARKET AT JACK-O-LANTERN FARMS- 430 Garage Road, Muscle Shoals, AL 35661; Tuesdays and Thursdays 3-7 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m.-2 p.m., year-round

*COLBERT COUNTY PLANT ADVICE/EDUCATION- Alabama Cooperative Extension System local office at 201 North Main St., Courthouse B, Tuscumbia, AL 35674, 256-386-8571

*PLANTING AN IDEA- Colbert County would be an ideal place for a Helen Keller-inspired, Alabama Garden of The Five Senses.

Y’ALL COME to Colbert County on your 67-County, Alabama Garden Party tour! It will delight ALL of your senses.

Colbert County Fragrant, Jewel Toned, Soft and Chewy, Crunchy, Tasty Jasmine Rice (4 servings)

My brother-in-law, Ben (who you know as Ben Johnson South), has a favorite ritual after a trip.  He asks us to name our favorite Sounds, Sights, Touches, Tastes and Smells.  Essentially, how did we experience our five senses in a new environment?  What a fun way to remember a trip! Some answers are easy, but once after a visit to Paris, the only smell I could conjure up was that of burnt toast.   Not particularly pleasant, but very memorable!

This is a very fragrant jasmine rice dish – additionally scented with shallots, citrus and spices.  But, it’s one that also satisfies the other senses.  Touch – from the texture of the soft rice, chewy cranberries and crunchy nuts.  Sound – from the crunch of the nuts.  Sight – from the colorful, jewel toned cranberries and pistachios.  And Taste – from… just all of it.  Your kitchen will smell wonderful!  Enjoy a sensory overload from this non-assuming and easy rice dish.


  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter – If using salted, reduce the amount of salt that you add.
  • 1 diced shallot – Reserve about a teaspoon for garnish if desired.
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. Garam Masala – (Garam Masala is a ground seasoning mixture containing cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, black pepper and coriander – some of the most aromatic spices on the planet.  If you don’t have it, you can use any mixture of those spices that you have and like)
  • 1 cup uncooked jasmine rice
  • Zest and juice from 1 orange (Squeeze the juice into a cup measure for efficiency later.)
  • ~ 1 1/2 cups water (or chicken or vegetable broth)
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup shelled, roasted and salted pistachios


  1. In a non-stick (preferred) saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, melt the butter and stir in the diced shallot, salt and Garam Masala (or your chosen spices) and the orange zest (reserve a little zest for serving).  Sauté briefly until the shallot is slightly softened and the mixture is very fragrant.
  2. Add the uncooked jasmine rice and stir until all grains are glistening with spiced butter.
  3. Put the orange juice into a cup- measure and add enough liquid (water or broth) to make 1 1/2 cups.
  4. Add the liquid to the pan and stir until the mixture comes to a boil.  Turn down the heat to low, cover the pan and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed and rice is fluffy.
  5. Fluff the rice and stir in a little more than half of the cranberries and pistachios.  Let stand for a minute or so, covered. 
  6. Remove to a serving bowl and keep warm to serve.  Garnish with additional cranberries, pistachios and a sprinkle of orange zest.  Wow – your kitchen will smell wonderful and you will love the tastes, texture, crunch and colors of this rice dish. 

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

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Ben South