COLUMN: Celebrating in the Wundergarten – WED ‘EM@TheArboretum


WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE A “STORYBOOK WEDDING” in 2024 in Cullman County and not spend a giant sack of golden coins? Let your “Storybook Wedding Plans” start here with a suggestion for a new, very affordable, magical setting and a treasure chest filled with sources for special celebrations.

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum SETTING—Cullman County Parks and Recreation welcomes weddings at its properties and only charges a modest rental fee. There are newly freshened, tree-canopied spaces for you to consider in the Arboretum/Wildflower Garden at Sportsman Lake Park.

An arboretum, a “living tree museum,” is a readymade, naturally magical setting for a “Storybook Woodlands Wedding.” This spring, Cullman County Master Gardeners, with help from other nature-loving volunteers and Alabama forester, Mary Claire Smith, identified a collection of tree species at Sportsman Lake Park that established the woodlands space as an arboretum.

The Cullman County arboretum has the transporting feeling of storybook magic awaiting every turn of a corner, the gentle peace of being in an enchanted forest and the radiant wonder of wildflowers in full sun. The trees remind us that happy marriages take root when we marry the ones we love and flourish when we love the ones we marry.

Directions to the Arboretum at Sportsman Lake Park: For those not from Cullman County, take the Exit 310 Exit from I-65 and head east on Alabama Highway 157 (go about a mile). Turn right onto U.S. Highway 31 South and turn right at the first traffic light onto Sportsman Lake Road. As you enter the park, you’ll see the FREE splash pad and the children’s playground. Stay on that path as if driving to the 17 picnic pavilions. Soon after you pass the 18-hole putt-putt golf course on your left, you’ll see the bright red Welcome Arbor of the Wildflower Garden. This is also the entrance to the forested beauty of the arboretum and your gateway to a storybook wedding setting. (Imagine the space with smooth pathways in 2024, wide enough for a bride and escort).

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum at Sportsman Lake Park means you and your guests will stroll down wildflower walks registered on the Rosalynn Carter National Butterfly Trail and through forested woodlands walks of songbirds. By 2024, the arboretum will also be on the Alabama Birding Trail.

Plan for a smaller gathering for the vows, possibly in front of a decorated, handmade arch. When you plan a venue visit at this Cullman County arboretum, consider these spots for a ceremony: 1) top of the Wildflower Garden near the potting shed, 2) the center “island” between the two streams and 3) the southernmost shaded area of the woodlands. Chairs could be rented for these vow moments.

If you want to include larger numbers for your event, invite people to a reception where they can explore the paths and trails with a Woodlands Wedding Cookie (recipe below) and a cup of cider made from Steele Orchard apples (recipe below). Gorgeous chalices for the bride and groom could be made by Cullman County’s pottery magician, SANDRA ABBOTT. You can find Sandra’s romantic, whimsical, storybook fantastical works at LELDON’S in the Warehouse District.

Arboretum/Wildflower Garden event information is available at Sportsman Lake Park (256-734-3052). Cullman County Parks and Recreation also welcomes weddings at Smith Lake Park and Clarkson Covered Bridge. For those wonderful venues with lots of natural beauty, call 256-739-2916.

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum INSPIRATION BOARD—As you begin imagining the magic of your storybook wedding, create a collage of images for all the elements you want. Let’s say you desire some blend of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Beetlejuice” and a Windsor castle wedding. An “inspiration board” could bring that alive. Consider all five senses: What will your storybook wedding look like? Smell like? Taste like? Sound like? What are the special touches you want to remember?

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum FLOWERS—You’re already surrounded by beautiful, natural, “LIVING” plant-life in the arboretum. In the “full sun” area you’ll find wildflowers in bloom beginning in late March. In the tree-shaded glades, depending on the month, your guests will be delighted seeing trillium in bloom, native azaleas, golden fall foliage or winter wonderland, evergreen trees.

Your bridal bouquet and flowers for the bridesmaids could be simple greenery your floral designer can suggest and possibly adding some white blossoms. (Note: Flowers and plants in the arboretum are for all to enjoy, so please remember Miz Nona’s “No No Rules” to not pluck, trample nor snip those beauties growing there.)

PAULA POYNER is not in the business of poking posies, but she would be like a fairy godmother creating sweeping arrangements of woodland branches and beautiful flowers for a storybook wedding.

Cullman County also has a grand gathering of great floral designers who are in the biz. I’m always delighted with the artistry of TRINA PIERCE’S team at Fairview Florist, the award-winning work of STEPHANIE and CARLA at Cullman Florist and unique compositions from Burke’s. MARY CHAMBERS at Chambers Seed and Feed would also be a perfect match for “real natural beauty” in a real, natural setting.

MIKE RICHARDS, an award-winning, floral designer of great renown, is with Added Touch at Cullman Cabinet. Mike’s artful arrangements are legendary. The grandly glorious flowers with prized plants from my family’s farm, which Mike created for dad’s funeral, were like Michelangelo-on-steroids.

Back to Paula Poyner (Mrs. David Poyner)—She creates in a sumptuous, English style, that allows airiness for butterflies to flit in and out of the branches. I became an admirer of Paula’s creativity seeing her altar flowers and bodacious chapel wreaths at Grace Episcopal Church. To contact Madame Poynor, and remember she is not in the “flower biz,” call the church office and leave your contact info. (BTW, Paula Poyner taught an “altar flower” program at the North Alabama AGRIPLEX this spring, and director Rachel Peinhardt Dawsey told me the entire gathering absolutely swooned over Paula’s inspired floral creations).

What about bouquets that include berries, rosemary and wild bird feathers like the wedding flowers of India Hicks mentioned in Flower Magazine (January 2022). If it’s good enough for the regal and creative, Ms. Hicks, it just may tickle your fancy.

Garlands of evergreens swagged across the reserved seats of honor? Baskets of fall foliage? Pinecone towers and twig-turreted castles? Think woodlands magic.

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum INVITATIONS—Cinderella would have a trumpeting messenger riding on a white stead throughout the countryside, which could be the talk-of-the-county for your wedding. However, if that is not in your budget, a storybook wedding is all about imaginative, handcrafted things. Your invitations might have a real person address the envelopes, you know, old school, pre-Evite. Consider recycled paper goods with a bit of fiber to give an old-fashioned feel.

Calligraphy seems ideal for a storybook wedding, but you may find computer fonts which mimic hand-drawn lettering and please you. PAM WILLINGHAM and LAURA WILLINGHAM WALKER are two of the most creative artists, and lovely people I’ve ever known. Both of those talents would have ideas about how to add hand-drawn artistry to make invitations keepsakes for your guests. You can connect with them through Art Shop Around the Corner on Highway 31 next to Urban Cookhouse.

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum MUSIC—Let guests enjoy the FREE birdsong. Consider “Games of Thrones” flutes, lutes and tambourines—possibly an unamplified, acoustic guitarist. Consider calling SKYLAR KING, bandmaster at Vinemont High School. Through an arts grant, his school was provided 18 guitars and many have learned to strum the cathedral classics. Vivaldi, anyone? Mr. King himself (note the royal name), is a gifted trumpet player. How about a storybook wedding march with the pageantry of a trumpet fanfare?

Seeds-Harvest Music Academy, Tony’s School of Music and the Music Department at Wallace State Community College are all good sources for musicians who don’t need to blast over loudspeakers to add joyful sound for your storybook wedding.

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum OFFICIANT—A woodlands wedding seems to call for a less formal exchange of vows and ceremony, but it wouldn’t have to. Make certain the priest or minister you choose, if you choose to include one, is comfortable with the lack-of-traditional script you may desire. When it’s not in their church building, some Episcopal priests are happy to officiate at weddings of those who are not Episcopalian. They could wear their more theatrical robes. You can find other officiants who will accommodate the ceremony you create.

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum MENU and CATERER—Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, in the center ring, I give you “The Merlin of Menu Magic,” “The Dumbledore of Delish Desserts,” “The Gandalf of Gourmet Goodies”—AARON NICHOLS. It’s been my pleasure to work with Chef Aaron as he conjured amazing menus and phenom presentations for the annual fundraising dinners for the North Alabama AGRIPLEX.

What I quickly learned working with Chef Aaron is that he is delighted to work with a suggested menu, but he is really at his most impressive given a bit of direction and then encouraged to work his wizardry to up to the heavens. He understands the choreography of trained wait staff and the theatre which enhances fine dining. His dishes look splendid and taste like a storybook feast fit for royalty. You can find AARON NICHOLS on Facebook or through the Wallace State Community College School of Culinary Arts.

Whomever is cooking, a “Storybook Woodlands Wedding” celebrates the bounty which comes from trees. Conjure a pine table laden with—sugarplums, apple scones, cherry tarts, mini-pecan pies, walnut waffles with maple syrup, and lots of “berry good” treats.

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum WEDDING DRESSImagine a bride dressed by twittering bluebirds as Disney’s animated fairytale “Cinderella” was, or perhaps a Broadway bride who dances out of an enchanted forest setting of “Into the Woods.” A Cullman-based seamstress who alters lots of bridal gowns, bridesmaid dresses and tux for the gents is PATSY HAYWOOD (256) 612-7653. Her skillful needlework could transform sackcloth to something sumptuous. Please tell her, this writer is still wearing the dinner jacket and tartan bowtie she worked her magic on.

HOW ABOUT A STORYBOOK WEDDING CORSET? Eva Blahut, only 30 miles away in Decatur, AL, told me there is a corset to fit every woman. Walking into Eva’s shop, Kissing Fish Corsetry (3rd Floor of Banks Street Antiques), is like walking into a magnificent Brothers Grimm folktale.  She has lace-up, puffy-sleeved shirts and capes for dandy gents, and a Rapunzel’s tower of corsets and frippery for vamps, vixens and blushing brides. Go ahead and schedule your corset fitting at  630-363-7806.

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum SHOES—Depends on the terrain. You don’t want dainty sandals for some outdoor weddings. If pathways are unpaved, you might plan for covering some areas in painter’s cloth muslin from HARBOR FREIGHT and layering with an assemblage of magical carpets.

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum WEDDING PARTY GIFTS—Would be forest-inspired. Consider elegant, turned-wood wine stoppers by JARROD SMITHERMAN of Woodchuck Turning Studio for the ladies, and engraved charcuterie boards by LELDON MAXCY for the men.

WED ‘EM@TheArboretum TOASTS AND SPEECHES—Reflect the wedding couples’ love for each other and for the gorgeous, green earth they inhabit together.  Here is a selection from poet, William Butler Yeats’


Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,

The holy tree is growing there;

From joy the holy branches start,

And all the trembling flowers they bear.

The changing colours of its fruit

Have dowered the stars with merry light;

The surety of its hidden root

Has planted quiet in the night;

The shaking of its leafy head

Has given the waves their melody,

And made my lips and music wed,

Murmuring a wizard song for thee.

CELEBRATING IN THE WUNDERGARTEN This culinary storytelling series imagines foods made by Frau Ruehl, gardener heroine of the folktale “WUNDERGARTEN,” set in 1870s Cullman County.




Makes a dozen 3-inch cookies

  • 1 1/2 cups mix of raw pecans, walnuts and sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1 large egg
  • 4 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 cup dried raisins and apricots (cut into 1/2-inch pieces)
  • 3/4 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate bars or chips or disks
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour


  1. Place racks in upper and lower thirds of oven; preheat to 350F. Toast nuts and seeds and oats on a rimmed baking sheet, tossing once, until golden brown, 10-12 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl; let cool.
  2. Meanwhile, mix egg, butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, vanilla, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl; let sit until nuts are cool (this will make for a chewier cookie).
  3. Add dried fruit and chocolate to nut mixture; toss to combine. Give egg mixture a good stir, then stir in flour. Mix in nut mixture, smashing it against the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, until combined and mix-ins are evenly coated in dough. (It will look like too many mix-ins, but dough will come together as it chills.) Cover and chill at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.
  4. Reheat oven to 350F. Using a 1/3-cup measure or #16 cookie scoop, portion out dough, packing firmly to make 12 cookies. Divide between 2 parchment-lined baking sheets as you go. Using measuring cup or your hand, press cookies into 2 1/2-inch diameter disks about 3/4-inch thick; sprinkle with sea salt.
  5. Bake cookies, rotating baking sheets top to bottom and front to back once, until golden brown and no longer wet-looking, 11-13 minutes. Let cool on baking sheets.
  6. DO AHEAD: Cookies can be made 1 week ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.




  • Steele Orchard apples
  • Water (enough to cover the quartered apples)
  • Sugar (if extra sweetness desired, perhaps 3/4 cup white sugar)
  • Spices (cinnamon and allspice)


  1. Combine all the ingredients in a stockpot.
  2. Boil for one hour, then simmer for two hours.
  3. Strain the mixture at least twice.


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