Southern Exposure

Until last month, to me, Southern gardening was more than a little bit mysterious. It was deep and musky, hot and sticky, draped in mosses. Impressions came from book chapters like “Shade Gardening in the South” in Taylor’s Guide to Shade Gardening and from Alice Adams’s short stories like “Roses, Rhododendron.” Plant lists often carried the warning: “Not a good plant for the South.” Thus, I’d thought, growing anything in the South required exceptions to usual procedures, like high-altitude baking: decrease the leavening, increase the oven temperature. On trips to Atlanta and Charlotte I’d seen mysterious things like acres of tulips planted every spring and railroad trestles covered with kudzu, which threatened to swallow up everything in its path.

Last month, I visited Birmingham, AL, to attend at horticulture conference at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, an impressive learning center with classrooms, an auditorium, a lecture hall, a library I’d love to spend days in, and 67 acres of varied and fascinating gardens. It’s open to the public, free, every day of the year. What I found in three days of lectures, tours, and self-guided exploration was surprising but not mysterious. Two words sum up the experience: “more” and “longer.” More plants thrive there, for a much longer growing season. The soil is rich and trees and plants grow fast, tall, thick, and luxurious.

Where else can you see huge-leaved tropical plants silhouetted against the framework of deciduous trees that have already lost their leaves? When we up North are doing our final fall cleanup, camellias are coming into bloom in Alabama, and temperatures might be in the 80’s.

At the center of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens' Dunn Formal Rose Garden, an airy gazebo called “Topiary Tempietto” by sculptor Mario Villa. Seventeen sculptures by American artists enhance the Gardens.

A double allee of crape myrtles (Lagerstromia indicia) lines the walk from the Gardens' entrance to the conservatory.

The largest clear span glasshouse in the Southeast, this conservatory displays a diverse collection of tropical and desert plants.

In the Hill Garden, the Kayser Lily Pool

My group’s tour of the Barber Alabama Woodlands Area was led by Fred Spicer, the Gardens’ executive director. A man with a vast knowledge of horticulture and plants’ botanical names, Fred led us though shaded paths and introduced us to the towering Longleaf Pine, the Alabama state tree, as well as to native wildflowers and unusual specimens like resurrection ferns, air plants that grow on tree trunks.

Native Euonymus ‘Hearts-A-Bustin,’ in the Barber Alabama Woodlands area

Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). Here the magnolias are bigger: taller, greener, shinier, healthier.

On a juniper, a resurrection fern (Polypodium polypodioides), an air plant, which attaches itself to trees and gets its nutrients from the air and from the water and nutrients that collect on the outer surface of its host’s bark.

Was this what I thought I was seeing? Along a path, castor bean plants (Ricinus communis), which grew on our street in Inglewood, CA. My mother warned us never to touch them. Deadly but decorative.

In the 7.5-acre Japanese garden, an elegant weeping Higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella 'pendula').

Edge detail outside the 16th-century-style teahouse, made from materials brought from Japan and built using traditional tools and techniques.

Bunny sculpture (just the right size for kids to climb on) by Frank Fleming guards the lettuce patch in the Bruno vegetable garden, which inspires adults, teaches kids, and produces 2,000 lbs. of vegetables a year.

Tempting offerings for sale at the Leaf and Petal garden shop.


About writedesigner

Graphic designer, writer, and gardener Ellen Shapiro is based in Irvington, New York. A frequent contributor to design blogs and magazines including Print, Imprint,, Communication Arts, and Etapes, she writes about trends, issues and personalities in design, illustration, photography, and visual culture around the world.
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One Response to Southern Exposure

  1. Looks and sounds like a love story. What are the challenges down there?

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