CULLMAN GARDENS inspired the magical-but-real setting for the folktale, “WUNDERGARTEN.” Let me guide you to the specific spot up a gentle path through the Wildflower Garden at Sportsman Lake in Cullman County, Alabama. This is where I rested a moment last August and the entire story was handed to me out of a cloudless, cerulean blue sky.
I was engulfed in a spellbinding, enchanted forest. Spread before me was a magic carpet of wildflowers. It was easy to imagine a healing tree with silver branches bearing golden fruit. A soft breeze carried the earthy scent of pine and sun-warmed herbs.
That sauna-humid day, we members of the Cullman County Master Gardeners had been respectfully revitalizing botanical beauty and wildflower gardening grandeur. The Eden-like Wildflower Garden was begun long ago by the pioneering, local Native Plant Society, who worked it faithfully through the years.
“Time-weaving is the most distinctive trait of those of us from the American South ,” I wrote in a book titled, “The Seven Signs of Southernness.” Most parts of America wholesale accept that moving forward is progress. Rebelliously, traditionally, we Alabamians believe there are some things in the past we want to preserve. Gracious manners is one example of this. Many of us Alabama time-weavers are comfortable with one foot in pre-Columbus Moundville and the other on a NASA launching pad to the moon.
The Wildflower Garden at Sportsman Lake is another, exquisite example of time-weaving. The beginning of the story, “WUNDERGARTEN,” reads like a Brothers Grimm tale–“Once upon a time, up in the pine forest hills of Alabama,” but this very real place was a German American homestead. During the Colonial Cullman era between 1870 and 1895, this large farm spanned the acreage between the present-day Cullman County Fairgrounds to the Belk’s shopping center. With the help of some hired, seasonal workers the place was worked by the men, women and children of the Max Schmidt family.
CULLMAN GARDENS and parks are the envy of many places, and THE GRANDEST PARK IN CULLMAN COUNTY is SPORTSMAN LAKE. We locals sometimes call it “FREEDOMS PARK,” both because of the tribute garden to those in the military who fought to preserve our freedoms, and, also because most of the amenities are FREE to the everyday parks-goer. Sportsman Lake is 178 acres grand, with a 28-acre reflecting pond surrounded by a lakeside promenade and rolling, tree-studded hills. There are 5 miles of bike and walking trails, which is like a FREE gym membership. Because much of the park is allowed to grow naturally, relying on time-honored conservationist values and limited environmental poisons, this is a place of grand biodiversity.
The Wildflower Garden at Sportsman Lake grew organically over time. Two, beautiful, new bridges built this academic year and installed by the Building Science students from the Cullman Area Technology Academy, a public school, guided by their instructor, Mike Burkett, are “bridging” the past work of many garden volunteers with visions for the future. Here are:
10 HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WILDFLOWER GARDEN as we celebrate the 150th birthday of Cullman
- BRIGHT RED, WELCOME ARBOR—The future is so bright and welcoming and RED, you need to wear shades. No longer can anyone ignore the Wildflower Garden at Sportsman Lake—it’s Cullman County Strawberry Red or Cullman County Tomato Red…it’s RED! Like Governor “Big Jim” Folsom and his Strawberry Picker band would sing, “Y’all Come!” Btw, thanks to the community service volunteer painters at Wal-Mart Distribution.
- FAMILY CIRCLE PICNIC TABLES—Park your vehicle across the street and come bring your lunch just inside the entrance. If you forget the “Wundergarten Real Lavender Cookies” in the car (see recipe below), it’s just a short trip to retrieve that batch you baked.
- BUTTERFLY TRAIL—One day last summer, there must have been 150 butterflies, one for every birthday Cullman is celebrating, along the path of numerous nectar plants. “Dancing butterflies” flit throughout the “WUNDERGARTEN,” folktale. This trail through the Wildflower Garden was my inspiration for that plot point.
- MUSHROOM STUMPERY—Besides the spirit-lifting, sculptural beauty of the upturned tree stumps and fallen logs, imagine the invitation this is to the fungus among us. This week, Alicia Millican, Alabama’s brilliant “mushroom guru,” guided me to a vast variety of mushrooms in this biodiverse garden. King Charles III, a world-class gardener, has a “stumpery” at his rural home, Highgrove. The Wildflower Garden “Stumpery” at Sportsman Lake is not yet as posh as Highgrove, but you can bring your imagination, a Thermos of Earl Grey tea and some homemade scones.
- TIME-SPANNING BRIDGES (1 and 2)—The impressive, 2023-installed structures are “bridging” the impressive past of the Wildflower Garden and the promising future. Under one of these bridges is where “The Frog Prince” of the “WUNDERGARTEN” holds the golden ball.
- ALABAMA STORYTELLERS’ CIRCLE—This space welcomes the storytelling genius of Alabama greats like Harper Lee, Rick Bragg, Zora Neale Hurston and Daniel Wallace. Also, it welcomes the stories of your grandpaw, your grandmaw and you.
- NATIVE AZALEAS—These plants are indigenous, ideal for the Woodlands and Wildflower Garden and resilient. Alabama Native Azaleas are BEAUTIFUL and LOW-MAINTENANCE, which are two words one doesn’t hear often in the same sentence. (See poster for Cullman’s first Native Azaleas and Wildflowers Sale coming March 25)
- BIRDER’S PERCH—Bring some binoculars and we will point you to some favorite spots for you to spot lots of specimens artistically saluted in John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.” The Alabama Ornithological Society rosters 420 bird species in our state. At least 158 of those bird species nest and have babies in Alabama.
- AN ARBORETUM-WORTHY WOODLAND GARDEN—To be designated as an official arboretum, an area needs at least 25 species of trees and woody plants. With guidance from Alabama forester, Mary Clair Smith, we are labeling tree species this coming Monday, March 13, beginning at 10 a.m. in the Wildflower Garden at Sportsman Lake. FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC in this “Freedoms Park,” please consider this your invitation to come learn where these treasured trees are: American Beech, Hickory, Hemlock, Oaks, Pines, River Birch and many more.
- THE FOUR SEASONS SANCTUARY GARDEN—Spring is a favorite time for many to celebrate “rebirth” in gardens. (This peaceful garden was where I rested and the sweet inspiration for the folktale, “WUNDERGARTEN,” came. I was looking toward the south and sketched an outline for the story, but the inspiration came from above. When I returned there this week, I felt the welcoming presence of the tale’s heroine, Frau Ruehl, and the orphaned gardener hero, Fritz. Seeing the trees beginning to bud, recalled this line from “WUNDERGARTEN”: “Hard winter branches promise soft spring blossoms.”
In 2023, both the City of Cullman and The Cullman Tribune, Alabama’s oldest continuously published weekly newspaper and Cullman County’s oldest business, are celebrating their 150th birthdays.
But, for 21st century cooks, our celebratory recipes embrace modern ease and have a greater array of ingredients than Frau Ruehl would have had in her pantry.
WUNDERGARTEN REAL LAVENDER COOKIES
- 2 1/4 cups flour
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 2 1/2 tsp. food-grade lavender (German=lavendel)
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- Heat oven to 350F and line bottom of a 9-inch tart pan with parchment paper. In a small bowl, stir together flour, salt and lavender (available at your grocer or online).
- In the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar at medium speed. Blend in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture in thirds, blending until incorporated after each addition. The dough should be moist, but crumbly.
- Break dough into pieces and press it into the prepared tart pan. Lay a small sheet of parchment atop the dough and use your fingers to gently smooth the surface and spread the dough evenly in the pan. Poke several holes into the dough with the tines of a fork.
- Bake until set and golden around the edges, about 30 minutes. Let cool in the pan five minutes, then transfer to a cutting board and use a sharp knife to slice the cookies into wedges. Place on a rack to cool completely.
YOU’RE INVITED! Cullman County Master Gardeners Plant Sales at Sportsman Lake will be Saturday, March 18, during the hours of the Cullman County Spring Yard Sale, and the first Native Azaleas and Wildflowers Sale will be Saturday, March 25, from 8 a.m.-3p.m. Look for the RED WELCOME ARBOR. Both sales support the revitalization of the Wildflower Garden at Sportsman Lake. FREE, ALL WELCOMED.
HAPPY SPRINGTIME in the WILDFLOWER GARDEN and AUF WIEDERSEHEN!
Find all columns in this series at www.cullmantribune.com/tag/celebrating-in-the-wundergarten.