It was about twenty years ago that my friend and colleague Gail Barton made our first trip to the Blackland prairies near Starkville, Mississippi. I’d met Gail and at Tulane University at a conference on native plants five years before. It wasn’t her first trip by far to the Black Belt. She grew up there, playing on the chalky outcrops of Starkville, Oktibbeha County, Misssissippi. Gail and I were in search of roadside remnant prairies to study, relicts of ancient prairie still found in this geological region of Alabam’.
With her help, and the help of many others, we were dog-gone successful at this.
At the time of our first trip, I was just cutting my teeth on prairie and she was an enthusiastic fellow-student and partner, both of us totally intrigued by the goings-on the prairie revealed.
Over the years, we’ve made many trips together studying the details of the prairie; its soils, its insects, but especially its plants. Those trips lead, in a very round-about but substantial way, to the prairie project at the University of Western Alabama that we were charged with designing and building during the year 2012.
Our ramblings in those early days in Starkville (aka Stark Vegas) eventually brought us to Entomologist Dr. Richard Brown’s (MSU) grand preserve, the Osborn Prairie property (see Friends of the Osborn Prairie), managed as a biological research site, where we would ooh and aah in the glaring sun, get our fill of Red Bugs, and move on.
Entomological collections curators from Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Brigham Young University (in the distance) sampling for leaf beetles at Osborn Prairie (photo via Facebook, and check this link below)
Gail took pity on me in 1996 when I asked here to help me write the first and so far, only catalog for prairie plants and seeds for the Central gulf coastal area of the U.S. Designing and building catalogs was something she had done many times over when she and her husband Richard owned and operated a successful mail order specialty plant nursery for many years in the 1980’s and 90’s. This catalog is a masterful work, still relevant today, thanks to Gail. And its still available to read digitally, see this blog home page section, Marc’s Old Catalog. Thanks Gail!
above, Gail Barton horticulturist, horticultural instructor, garden designer, author, botanist, master nursery propagator, and friend of the prairies, in Port Epes, Alabama, with a nine foot tall Silphium laciniata, Compass Plant flower scape (click to enlarge photo).
Over the years, we’ve made many trips together studying the details of the prairie; its soils, its critters, but especially, its plants. Those trips lead, in a very round-about but substantial way, to the prairie design and build collaboration at the University of Western Alabama that we were charged with in 2012.
The UWA Black Belt Garden, as it is known, was/ is, a labor of love inspired and directed by Dr. Richard Holland, a Biologist who happened to be president of the University at the time. Gail and I took our first trip to the Alabama Black Belt region when we drove together to the Alabama Wildflower Society meeting in the Livingston area hosted by Dr. Holland and the University’s Black Belt Center, in about 1999. We went to Old Bluff Port that day, on the Tombigbee River and saw the impressive chalk cliffs there. We saw the campus “prairies”, which are large fields not restored as much as they are burned. Then we left to hunt roadside prairie in Sumter County. That day, we found a cool prairie landscape that happened to double as a church cemetery.
On this trip, we missed seeing the awesome cemetery prairie by maybe a day or two, since it had just been mowed before we arrived, above
but a tiny patch was left, where some chalk chunks were and the mowers couldn’t get. We found many prairie plants like this several (many) year-old Compass plant, Silphium laciniata, below
American Agave, Manfreda virginica, above, in fruit
a Pale Coneflower rosette, top, and New England Aster in foreground, above
…a fruiting scape of Rough Button Blazing Star, and slew of other cool dudes.
Departing the Church cemetery, we checked out a couple of cow fields we know of for Green Milkweed seeds, but to no avail, so it was on to Port Epes, the land of opportunity.
On the way to Port Epes, a killer stand or Rose Bud Blazing Star caught our eye on highway 11, so we wheeled around and checked it out, above. It was loaded with the cool Blazing Star and some Blue Salvia, Salvia azurea, below.
at Port Epes, we were treated to a typical dazzling show of botanicallia, lots of stuff to see.
Euphorbia in chalk
Lots and lots of the fleur de jour, Rose bud Blazing Star, Liatris aspera. The buds, before opening, look like little tiny roses. Lots of variation in color in these.
prairie chalk with groovy Blazing Star
will brake for Rosin Weed seed. photo by Gail
the map of Sumter County that we used to find our seed collection sites
the initial garden concept as Gail drew it
Life-long resident of Sumpter County, Sam Ledbetter (foreground), staff horticulturist at UWA was an invaluable help in the Garden project. He played a key roll in guiding us through the back roads in our search for propagules, seed-collection sites for the Black Belt Garden. Here (looking downriver) is Sam looking down at the water below, at one of our collection sites along the Tombigbee, Old Bluff Port. The chalk is clearly very deep here, chalk layed down at the same time the Cliffs of Dover were formed.
Looking upriver, the sunlight helps give a perspective of height from the river itself, about 40 or 50 feet up.
Highway 17 is loaded with more Indian and Big Bluestem grass than anywhere in the south that I’ve seen. Sumter County is said to be one of two Counties in the Black Belt with the most in tact remnant prairie. When we were working on the Garden, we spent a lot of time collecting on the roadside edge of cutover pine plantations on highway 17.
Me in the UWA Black Belt Garden, Sept 6, 2015, photo by Gail
Rose Bud Blazing Star and Rosin Weed at The UWA Garden.
one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. We couldn’t resist, and picked up a giant chunk of chalk discarded at the roadside; a seashell embedded 160 million years ago, at right.