67-County Alabama Garden Party: Escambia County

The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) Escambia County Devilish Chocolate Cakes with Raspberry Sauce (with Ben South, left, and Will Bryan, right) (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.

Escambia County

In a church in Brewton all covered with vines, people enter and exit in two straight lines.

Alabama has many impressive places of worship from pre-Columbian mud mounds to 21st century steel-and-glass cathedrals. But, the reason a certain church building in Brewton is outstanding is not because of the structure, though it is handsome, mid-Victorian stonework. The wow factor of this place is the plants- the vines that have devotedly climbed onto and covered the soaring architecture.

Many Escambia County locals still call the beloved vine-covered structure The Universalist Church, which it was for decades. The green-growing, Gothic arches are prominent in downtown Brewton at 325 Belleville Ave. The current congregation at this historic worship house is the Cornerstone Community Church.

The poet, James Bertolino, penned this lofty wedding toast with its romantic, vine imagery which would be perfect at the Escambia County church: “May your love be firm, and may your dream of life together be a river between two shores—by day bathed in sunlight, and by night illuminated from within. May the heron carry news of you to the heavens, and the salmon bring the sea’s blue grace. MAY YOUR TWIN THOUGHTS SPIRAL UPWARD LIKE LEAFY VINES, like fiddle strings in the wind, and be as noble as the Douglas fir. May you never find yourselves back to back without love pulling you around into each other’s arms.”

Escambia County was established Dec. 10, 1880 during the Reconstruction Era after the American Civil War. Here on the Alabama-Florida line the geography regularly endures battering winds and torrential rains that uproot giant trees in hurricane season. But, vines cling, withstand the challenge and continue to thrive. Most vines sleep, then creep, then leap with boundless enthusiasm.

Among the most-treasured vines in Alabama are the ivies found at many historic sites. And, perhaps the most-derided vine is an invasive, non-native—kudzu (aka: The Vine that Ate the South).

Since the earliest days of statehood, Alabama gardeners have prized flowering perennial vines. Here are some cherished favorites:

*CLEMATIS (Clematis pitcheri and Clematis texensis) are both native American types to add some big, blooming color to Southern gardens; clematis, depending on type, can grow from 4-25 feet.

*HONEYSUCKLE VINE (Lonicera selections) climbs to 20 feet, and butterflies love this pretty plant; this vine with fragrant, tube-shaped blooms is a good choice for smaller gardens; particularly consider Lonicera sempervireas.

*CLIMBING HYDRANGE (Hydrangea petiolaris) climbs to 50 feet; this elegant vine became popular in the 20th century for shaded areas like a wall or fence but also do well in full sun; particularly pleasing are the clusters of white flowers in summer.

*WISTERIA (Wisteria selections) is a polarizing vine one either loves or hates; it bears clusters of blue, light purple, purple or white flowers. It is a very aggressive plant that can ambush a garden with its underground runners; if you’re a fan of wisteria, try the North American natives “Blue Moon” and “Aunt Dee.”

*BITTERSWEET (Celastrus scandens) has beautiful yellow colors in the fall and bears red fruits that are lovely in dried arrangements; make sure you get a male and a female plant if you want fruit. This vine climbs to 30 FEET. CAUTION: make certain you don’t confuse native American bittersweet with the invasive Oriental bittersweet.

*HARDY PASSIONFLOWER (Passiflora incarnata) grows to 8 feet and is a host plant for butterflies, so don’t become alarmed when you see caterpillars chewing on the leaves; soon you will have a haven for butterflies.

*DUTCHMAN’S PIPE (Aristolochia macrophylla) has heart-shaped leaves that can grow as wide as 10 inches, and the vine climbs to 30 feet. It grows well in sun and shade, and it’s a host plant for swallowtail butterflies.

*TRUMPET VINE (Campsis) provides a summertime burst of orange/red/yellow flowers, and hummingbirds love this fast-grower. You may want to grow this vine in a contained area because it spreads via underground stems; it can climb to 30 feet.

There are many delightful vines for Alabama gardeners to enjoy, including ones perfect for containers and others which thrive as indoor plants. However, here in Escambia County, with the famous church all covered with vines, let’s end our discussion with “Trumpet Vine” and its blooms which look like they could belong to the Old Testament angel, Gabriel, a messenger of God coming to announce the Judgement Day.

Here are other positive and pleasurable PLANTS + PEOPLE things to explore in this southern part of the state on your 67-County, Alabama Garden Party tour, including our original recipe, perfect for your angels at Sunday dinner when the preacher comes: Escambia County Devilish Chocolate Cakes with Raspberry Sauce.

*ATMORE FARMERS’ MARKET- 201 East Louisville Ave., Atmore, AL 36504; Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays 7 a.m.-5 p.m., year round

*CITY OF BREWTON CHOOCHOO MARKET- 205 Belleville Ave., Brewton, AL 36427; Saturdays 9 a.m.-noon, Thursdays 5-7 p.m., April-July

*ESCAMBIA COUNTY FARMSTANDS- Cecil Daniel (Atmore), Leon Wilson (Atmore), Turk’s Produce (Atmore)

*POARCH BAND OF CREEK INDIANS- Based in Escambia County, these descendants of the Creek Nation were not removed from their tribal lands and have lived together for 200 years in and around the reservation in Poarch, Alabama. For information on the annual powwow held each fall, call 251-368-9136


*ESCAMBIA COUNTY-GROWN SERVED HERE- (Atmore) The Gather, 111 West Nashville Ave., Atmore, AL 36502, 251-303-8080; try the Hillbilly Hummus (tomatoes, onion, okra, olive oil).

*ESCAMBIA COUNTY PLANT ADVICE/EDUCATION: Alabama Cooperative Extension System local office at 175 Ag-Science Drive, Suite D, Brewton, AL 36426, 251-867-7760

*PLANTING AN IDEA: This part of Alabama is mighty fine for growing vines. A wonderful and free-to-all venue for such ceremonies as weddings could be a vine-covered pergola in a public park in Atmore, Brewton or possibly in a more pastoral location in Escambia County. Here’s a proposed quote for a park bench in this oasis: “Happiness is a vine that takes root and grows within the heart.”—Kahlil Gibran

Y’ALL COME to Escambia County on your 67-County, Alabama Garden Party tour! You’ll like it immediately, but should you be the tentative type, it’ll grow on you.

Escambia County Devilish Chocolate Cakes with Raspberry Sauce

Little ones, specifically grandsons, can be angelic or devilish in just the blink of an eye.  Fortunately, as they mature, they grow more angelic.  During this Bicentennial, 67-County Garden Party series, Ben Johnson South asked about our grandsons getting involved, as they love to help cook.  Russ made the Wilcox County Quilt Pan Vegetables, Andrew made the Calhoun County Pine Syrup and now our third sweet cherub, Will, has made a devilish, chocolatey cake with fresh raspberry sauce. 

What makes it devilish?  It’s a normal chocolate cake mix plus a generous dose of cinnamon and ground red pepper, such as d’Espelette or cayenne.  Topped with a sifting of confectioners’ sugar and a fresh raspberry sauce, the result is a chocolaty and spicy cake that is worthy of any church social or family gathering – whether everyone is behaving angelically or devilishly!


  • 1 recipe of very chocolaty cake batter – if you have a homemade favorite recipe – use it.  If not, and/or you are cooking with a 10-year-old, this cake is still very good with a boxed cake mix (we used Ghirardelli).  Most mixes will call for a few eggs and some vegetable oil, so be sure you have those on hand.
  • 1-2 tbsp. each ground cinnamon and red pepper
  • 2 cups fresh raspberries
  • Juice and zest from one lemon
  • 2 tbsp. sugar (at least)
  • Confectioners’ sugar for serving


  1. Pre-heat oven as directed by your cake batter instructions – usually about 350F.
  2. Prepare cake batter as instructed.  Mix in the cinnamon and red pepper.  If using cayenne, start with one tablespoon and taste test.  Add more if you want a little more heat.  If using a milder red pepper, such as the emerging, popular d’Espelette, you may need at least two tablespoons. 
  3. Use cooking spray or a little oil and prepare your baking pan of choice as directed by your batter recipe.  You can bake into a bunt or tube pan.  We used four mini bunt pans handed down by my mother-in-law. Bake as directed for your size pan.
  4. While the cake is baking, prepare the raspberry sauce (or make at any time and keep refrigerated for a day or so). Rinse berries well, drain and place into a bowl with the lemon juice, zest and sugar. Gently stir and let sit for about 10 minutes.  Move to a small saucepan and begin to simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally.  Simmer until the berries start to disintegrate and a “sauce” starts to form.  Taste and add more sugar if too tart – some berries are sweeter (more angelic) than others.
  5. Once the cake(s) are done (top springs back to the touch or when a toothpick comes out mostly clean) remove to a cooling rack.  Let cool for about 10 minutes before turning them out of the pan(s) by running a butter knife around the edge and turning upside down onto a serving plate.
  6. Serve warm, if possible, topped with sifted confectioners’ sugar and the raspberry sauce.  Enjoy the devilishly spicy flavor of your new favorite chocolate cherub cake!


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

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Ben South