UWA Campus Wildflower Wonderland, Black Belt Prairie Garden, coming to a rolling boil

and first, you add a roux..

Its been a full year since I’ve had a chance to visit the University of Western Alabama Black Belt (BB) Garden. And what a wonderful thing, to walk these floral collections, with my good friend and prairie-partner-in-crime, Gail Barton. Gail and I started our study-work here many years ago, when we’d organize annual trips into the Black Belt Prairie region to ride the backroads, hunting for remnants of this ancient complex vegetative system, trying to learn the characteristics and the quirks of its plants. We would drive til we saw some prairie indicator plant and then slow down the truck to determine weather the spot was sufficiently loaded with cool plants to stop and rustle around. The most interesting thing we saw in all of our trips may be the Cemetery just north of Livingston on highway 39 that has a prairie all wrapped-up in headstones…. We’d originally started doing this many years before in and around Gail’s old stomping grounds, near the city of Starkville Mississippi, where she was raised. One of our frequent stops was the MSU Entomology Department’s Osborne Prairie, a leased piece of land with a high quality natural area just east of town. We ended up spending time studying in the Sumter County Alabama area too simply because it was closer to Meridian (Gail’s home) and because it had lots of available remnants. We didn’t realize just how much prairie was in Sumpter County til’ we were awarded the opportunity to build the BB Garden. Most people in Sumter County don’t realize that there is prairie in their county but I am here to tell you, there’s plenty still of it left. Sumter County is rich with natural flora. It just hasn’t yet been destroyed.

We were contracted to design and develop the prairie garden using only species found within the county lines of Sumter County. Dr. Richard Holland, President of the University, concieved the idea of the Garden and brought us aboard to assist him with this effort. We executed the work for the garden, beginning in June 2012 and ending in Early 2013.

For nearly a year, each month, Gail and I would meet and spend a day or so with Sam Ledbetter, the Horticulturist at the Garden who happens to be a life time resident of the County. We would have a growing season to scour the county, hunting for species to collect seed or cuttings from. Our goal was propagating for high conservatism, providing a prairie landscape high in species richness and species biodiversity.

We have succeeded in creating gardens that are incredibly diverse, ones that tell a story and that touch the emotions. Its a great garden, no doubt.

The famous Wiggins, Mississippi native and 1930’s baseball Hall of Famer “Dizzy” Dean once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it!”

Well, I am here to tell you, these are the best restored prairie gardens in the state of Alabama. They are loaded with species very uncommon in gardens, and some, rare in the county and state. Most importantly, they contain the genetics that when you walk by, scream out at you, “hey! I’m Sumter County, Alabama, Black Belt Prairie! Just sayin’!”

black belt garden

above: the garden can be seen in the google earth shot above as a triangle in the center of the frame, sectioned by paths. click on it to enlarge it.


Me (Ed Norton) on left, with Gail Barton, Sam Ledbetter, and UWA BB Garden Director Steven Liverman in the garden, June 2014

There is a super-duper collection of Blazing Stars here. We found species we had to get identified. And all of the Silphiums known to exist in the county are here, present and accounted for. There are seedlings of Silphium laciniata, the Prairie Compass Plant, scattered across this one acre landscape. Seedlings of Echinacea pallida, too. Gail and Sam grew these from seed.

The most special plant found would be the Side Oats Gramma grass. Gail got just a tiny population in one location along the Tombigbee River. She got a fraction of a handful of seed and grew seedlings to transplant.


above: at left, just after final seeding in November 2012.  right, June 2014


above: large clumps of Black Belt prairie grasses form dense textural patterns across the garden.


looking south…


above: Liatris, Blazing Star


a legume member propagated from an Epes, Alabama prairie. I forget the name, but its a high conservancy species sometimes found in large numbers near chalk outcrops.


a monarda, possibly a fistulosa X punctata hybrid?


Eryngium, Button Snakeroot


Spiral Orchid


Narrow-Leafed Mountain Mint


Indian grass and smaller Little Bluestem grass


Looking west in the southeastern-most prairie patch


seedlings and blooming Compass Plant, Silphium laciniata, are scattered about


above: the fuzzy, full foliage of Helianthus silphioides just before bolting to bloom. Thanks to Dr Brian Keener for the ID on this plant which was a riddle to the rest of us.


Gail shows off her man-made chalk out-crop, inspired by a commercial development filling with chalk soil fill. She simply asked to borrow some.


Looking south from the Campbell House, the outcrop in the distance on the right


Big bluestem grass growing large above mass of Little Bluestem grass


Monarda and Grey Coneflower in some areas are quite colorful


Little Bluestem grass sod and Compass Plants at my feet, growing in the Garden with Sumter County blood.

It looks like our collecting at Mr. Miller’s prairie hayfield just up highway 80 from the college paid off since tens of thousands of adolescent little bluestem and Indian grass plants cover the ground, in some places forming a thick dense sod. The grasses are as thick as thieves. They make up a dominance across the ground plain that is to me divine.

Most people would overlook the garden as a place to be mowed, but I understand that it is being used for biology classes.

It was a fantastic opportunity to be able to help in preserving and nurturing these fine and numerous plantings.

If you get a chance, check in when you’re going through Livingston. The garden is five minutes from the Interstate-20 Livingston exit, thirty minutes east of Meridian Mississippi. Come see the ‘organized wildness’ we’ve created!

a carnivorous wonderland

Imagine a place where venus fly traps grow by the tens of thousands, the clear-white flowers littering the green grassy ground as far as the eye can see. A place where the linear, pencil thick fuzzy foliaged Club Moss, a fern relict of the flora of the dinosaurs still thrives. Dime-sized carnivorous Sundews are everywhere, poking their tiny white flower spikes high above their rosette. Where the lipstick pink flowers of native orchids have grown for a thousand years. The coastal Mississippi peat bog is where you’d be. Its where the soldier-erect leaf-scapes of highly evolved Pitcher Plants, ancient plants, scattered in various patterns punctuated by the occasional charred stump of an old pine and the toasty-crispy burnt stems of some unfortunate shrubs that happened to be a little too flammable to survive here. You’d be atop a deep layer of peat and sphagnum: the highly acidic coastal bog of the great state of Mississippi.

This vision is one that I have still, burned into my memory. It was, at one time, a reality. It was, and maybe still is, the 30 acre Pearl River County Mississippi bog of Mr. Coleman and Mrs. Freda Tarnok.


above: Mr. Coleman Tarnok, photograph from the article by Jeanette Hardy, Times-Picayune, May 12, 2000, titled, Pretty Pitchers  (click on the photo to enlarge)

Not sure if the place is still there. Last contact I had was a call I made to his daughter about two or three years after Mr. Coleman passed. Mrs. Freda had preceded him in death by a few years and I had only on a few occasions, met his son Richard.

My first introduction to the Tarnocs was through Bob Brzuszek, who came on board at the Crosby Arboretum as Curator in 1990. Bob invited me along. We jumped into his pick-up and off we went, to see what all the fuss was. Bob had been in touch with the Tarnoks before that. It was my first visit. The place was a sight for sore eyes, as my Mom would say.


above: a photo from the Picayune Item Newspaper October 21, 1992.  Bob Brzuszeck, Coleman Tarnok, Jane McKinnon, and myself. Bob was picking up Frog Belly pitchers for one of the first Crosby plant sales.

Mr. Coleman was quite a character. A fifth generation florist whose family came from Hungary, he had married Mrs Freda and settled down into the country life in the tiny community of Carriere, about an hour’s drive north into Mississippi from New Orleans. He once told me that he had started raising a few cows, but his cows kept getting stuck in the bogs and he’d have to pull them out so he needed something different to do in that spot other than grazing livestock. He settled on building a wold-class collection of Pitcher plants, species of the Sarracenia genus. And that he did.

Being a fellow who relied of foliage for sustain his livelyhood, he saw opportunity in growing and providing pitchers for sale in the wholesale florist market. After all, he had established many crops from which to harvest either foliage or flower. The Tarnoks had rows of southern magnolia, ornamental cherries and various other shrubs and trees used for cutting, established on drier slopes on the farm. I remember once walking with him to this super-cool spot. The scent of Mexican primrose filled the air, as the plants of this delicious delicacy were lined up neatly, in perfect white rows that took the contour of the hillside. HMr Coleman also grew White Yarrow and Sweet William as a cut flower crop. The Magnolias, though, were most odd and memorable. They had been matter-of-factly trimmed for many years for their foliage in order to make garlands, stripped as it were for weddings and for Christmas decoration. What remained were these tall green collums, pillar-like verticals, twelve or fifteen feet high and about three feet in diameter. Something you’d see done purposefully at Disney World. An odd sight it was, let me tell you. I wish that I had a photograph of that planting today.

Mr. Coleman had collected many different native azalea species and unique selections of species over the years (he claimed he had “fifty different kinds”) and had these in rows, too, for the purpose of cultivating bud clusters for shipping to some of the most renown wholesalers in the country and the world. It was always amazing to me that these plants were very so lush and vigorous, considering that they’d been cut so drastically for their flowers. This taught me that it is really hard to hurt a native Rhododenron with a pair of pruning shears.

Over the years Mr. Coleman collected all of the pitcher species he could find. This was in the pre-internet days, so he didn’t just google it. He wrote letters and communicated on the phone with people who told him about another who had this or that species or species variation. He would then travel to pickup a batch to plant at the farm. That’s what Mr Coleman did. He traveled and dug and then brought plants back home and planted. And then he nurtured. He did this for many years.

By the time I came along, it was “thirty years ago” when he had planted the first plants and he had burned and kept open, the bog, by way of fire. The bog had rewarded his efforts by multiplying the numbers a hundred thousand-fold. Some the plants had begun, over many years, to cross-pollinate, to hybridize. This crossing had produced a number of unique and very significant variations. It was a mind blowing experience to behold all of the different characteristics of the plants in that field. His pride and joy cultivar was a single plant: a hybrid of the western Mississippi-Alabama-Florida panhandle species, Sarracinnia Leucophylla and another unknown parent. The plant had a double flower. As far as I know (at least, he told me back then that), its the only double blooming pitcher plant known to exist: Sarracennia leucophylla Variety “Tarnoc”.

My personal favorites were always the taller-than-normal strain of the White Pitcher, Sarracinnia leucophylla. Taller because it had crossed with Sarracenia flava, the tallest pitcher species, producing a nearly all-white foliage-scape sporting purple venation. Talk about a cool plant! It came almost up to my hip in height.

Mr. Tarnok told me once of how wholesalers in Holland were building acres of glass houses in which to house and preserve his coveted plants. He would ship to Holland each year. His stories were so incredible. But I believed him. He told me they only shipped pitchers in the spring when they were newly emerged from the fire, before they got loaded up with bugs. Pitchers are carnivorous and have a good appetite for insects. He liked to tell you that “Ron Determann of the Atlanta Botanical Garden buys from me all the time!” Another story he liked to tell was when he had guests who he didn’t know well or ones he suspected that they might “lift” something, he’d say “we would tell them to clap their hands to whole time they toured the greenhouse so we’d know they weren’t putting plants in their pockets”.

I have some great memories of trips to the Tarnok’s. I brought my Mom and friend-client Grace Newberger there once just before they teamed-up to paint a bog-inspired mural on the walls of my new house addition. I organized several field trips over the years to the Tarnok farm. I would bring anyone who would go with me. I recall Kim Hawks and Scott Ogden visiting once and I believe that is how Mr. Coleman got the double flowering cultivar into cultivation, by way of Kim’s cajoling and superior knowledge about plant tissue culture. Today you can google Tarnok and commonly see the double flowering pitcher for sale.

The Tarnoks had the hooded Pitcher (S. Minor), the Frog Belly pitcher (S. purpurea), the Parrot pitcher (S. psittacenia), the Pale pitcher (S. alata), the White pitcher, the Sweet pitcher (S. rubra), and the Yellow pitcher, (S. flava) and a whole lot of hybrids.

I took plant explorer-nurseryman Dan Hinkley, of Heronswood Nursery, there once. He was impressed and he quickly told the queen of theme Martha Stewart who sent  an eight man team of designer-photographer-types from Manhattan to the bog for a magazine shoot.

Most fondly though are the memories of walking the bog with the Tarnoks and sharing it with some of my plant friends. Although that bog is one that anyone can identify with.

I guess its been about ten or twelve years since he has passed, and I have just heard yesterday that the Mr. and Mrs. Tarnok’s daughter Linda is maybe (possibly) restoring this Mississippi botanical gem. I sure hope that its true. To see that field of fly traps and pitchers again would be such a treat.


above: Sarracenia minor


the species distribution range of S. minor


above: the White pitcher, Sarracenia leucophylla


range of S. leucophylla


above: Parrot pitcher, Sarracenia pstittacina (click to enlarge photo)


range of Parrot’s pitcher


above: the chartreuse foliage of Pale pitcher, Sarracenia alata


the range of S. alata


above: untypical, dark foliaged Yellow pitcher, Sarracenia flava


range of S. flava


above: the Frog Belly pitcher, Sarracenia purpurea


distribution of the Frog Belly pitcher


typical flowers of S. alata


typical S. leucophylla flower

DCF 1.0

the double-flowered S. leucophylla hybrid “Tarnok”

The one thing I learned from Mr. Tarnok’s bog was how adaptable these plants are once established. Just add fire. pretty cool stuff.

good day!