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.
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.