a cedar and chalk run with Gail Barton

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.

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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 dirt


prairie chalk


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.

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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.











a recipe for raising pepper and salt skippers

I dropped by the Repentance Park project in Baton Rouge yesterday on my way back from prairie work in Eunice. It turned out to be yet another highlight of my four day trip. The Indian grass that was planted in December as plants that barely had barely any substance, have blossomed into a very substantial element in the landscape.

I was just a minor player in the project, advising the associate, Joseph James, of Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architects, Watertown, Massachusetts, who worked closely with Jennifer Harbourt of Reich and Associates Landscape Architects, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Gabe Vicknair of the City of Baton Rouge, to produce a working concept.

RP perspective 1

The design for the park was beautifully done, drastically simplifying what was there before: a glitsy concrete waterfall-monolith garden. The idea behind the new design, I believe, was to open-up the space and make it more of a central open-space between the Natural History Museum, the Convention Center, City Hall and the Old State Capitol. The park can now be used as lawn for kids to play, a sitting area for relaxation, a small outdoor concert area and an area for kids to get wet and cool off in the water-jet play area on a hot summer day: all the while functioning as a green-space connection between the much-used public buildings that surround it.


Joe and I hammered out the details of executing a planting of what is not on the typical plant list regionally: Indian grass. The Indian grass was used for an area that required a plant that would permanently stabilize the very steep slope that dropped dramatically from the park’s central walkway and a plant that would require the very least amount of maintenance.






above: Indian grass meets lawn and walkway

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above: an image of the slope with a Cereal Rye cover-crop (April).  Another image, as the Rye was finishing-up and laying over as mulch (June) with Indian just getting started. And yet another of the Indian grass in full-glory after the Cereal Rye has withered away (yesterday, August).

I collected seed of Indian grass from the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society’s restoration site and passed it on to Gail Barton(Yardflower, Meridian, Mississippi) who is skilled at germinating the seed of the plant. She, over the years, has found the precise window of time that is crucial to getting the seed germination to occur. She shifted the seedlings into one inch plug trays and pampered them until it was time to ship them out. It took about a year altogether to grow the plants.


above: slope before planting

I picked the plants up from Gail in November and delivered them on to George Francise, who was the magician-contractor who did the soil work, planting and management part of the project. And a stellar job he did!

Joe and I designed the Indian grass plugs to be planted, with a cover crop of Cereal Rye (Secale cereale L.) to be seeded immediately after planting the Indian grass. The Cereal Rye is a grain-grass plant that is less leafy and more vertical in growth than common Rye grass and doesn’t shade out, starve for sunlight, the plants it is growing with. But the Cereal Rye also functioned as a temporary soil stabilizer / erosion control plant until the Indian grass got going. It functioned as a mulch when it died and it also was pretty green in winter, adding a little texture, color and form contrast to the lawn and dwarf Carrisa hollies nearby.

The Ceral Rye was a big hit when it went into bloom (inflorescence). It provided a temporary pastoral image while the Indian grass got settled in, rooted and ready for summer growth.

Summer brought the intense heat and sunlight, which is a requirement of Indian grass. And the Indian responded to this. The soil that was obviously a really good processed soil, from somewhere local, I suspect. It provided a good medium for the Indian roots to grow.

In June, I had dropped in to check on the planting and was quite happy with how things were but it was clear that a fertilization application was in order. I suspect that that was done because when I stopped in yesterday, the Indian grass was something to see! As my Dad and Mom always said: it was a sight for sore eyes. The grass was mostly three or four feet in height and in some cases, reaching to six feet, with terminals getting ready to form its much-anticipated flower spikes. In a month it should be an even more dramatic sight to behold as the fluffy yellow plumes emerge atop the stems, and sway in the late summer breeze.

The genetic diversity expressed in the plants is something of interest to me. Not one plant looks like another with different heights and different leaf forms and different leaf color. This is, I am sure, a planting like no other around: 3200 indian grass plants in one planting, functioning as a purposeful landscape element but it will also have the unique ability of providing a larval host source for the Pepper and Salt skipper butterfly.






All indications are the plant will be there a long while, having been so well cared for in the landscape. It will not only produce seed that will drop and seed in bare areas between plants but it will also spead clonally to eventually cover the vacant spaces on the slope, creating a solid stand of vegetation.


above: the pepper and salt skipper butterfly should find it good living at the Park. Its tiny and fast!

good day!