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!

New Orleans’ Battlefield Prairie

Well, Kurt Culbertson’s done it again. After just receiving word a little over a week ago that his firm had been awarded the commission to design the new 100 acre Lafayette, Louisiana all-native City Park, his firm, the Design Workshop, was chosen this past Friday as designers for the major sprucing-up of the Chalmette National Historical Park, in time for its 200th birthday. That means we might get a battlefield prairie, just like the ones at Gettysburg and Valley Forge!

5026 Chalmette Presentation_130926_1234pm_NOTES

(click to enlarge photos) Image provided courtesy of the Design Workshop


The only green space in this industrial/residential area of the City, Chalmette Battle field, once bounded by a swamp to the north and still bounded by the river to the south, was the perfect troop-funnel for the British troops to pass, until they encountered General Andrew Jackson’s very-ready army, all dug-in.


Battle of New Orleans, Jean-Hyacinthe Laclotte (American 1765-1828

A bridge will cross the Rodriguez Canal which will be planted with native Large Blue-flag Iris (Iris giganticaerulea), a plant very likely found in the marsh next-door at the time of the  Battle. Funny thing, my brother Guy told me at lunch the other day that he’s about 85% sure a Rodriguez on my Grandma Aida Hymel’s side fought in this Battle. (image courtesy of the Design Workshop)

In the Chalmette Park design, Kurt colored the 50 acre central battle field the color red with the winter foliage of Little Bluestem grass, what the Acadians called paille rouge (or red straw), as a way to sympolize the “sea of red” on the field the day of the battle. (image courtesy of the Design Workshop)


above: the prairie grass, Little Bluestem (Scizachirium scoparium) in its full Autumn glory, taken at Midland prairie remnant just a stone’s throw to the Mermentau River. (photo taken in 1988 by Dr. Malcolm Vidrine, co-founder of the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society). The seed for the Chalmette project would likely come from these very same genetic eco-types. They were rescued many years ago from the brink of extinction by the volunteers of the Society.


Though I expect a diverse prairie-meadow planting, I hope to use the Steven F. Austin Mast Arboretum and Pineywoods Native Plant Center’s horticultural selection “Grape Sensation’ as the main red in the scheme of things, to ‘color’ the central prairie meadow from late spring until fall like Kurt wants. This wonderful plant is a seedling variation of the normally white and very rare Texas species of Gaillardia aestivalis var. Winkleri. It blooms profusely and for a very long time: more than 6 months of the year.  And its a nectar-producing butterfly attractor of major proportions.   http://yardflower.com/?tag=texas-firewheel

The argument for the design would certainly not have been as forceful if not for input from historian Tim Pickles and nationally recognized public works artist Larry Kirkland. Their help was invaluable. Mr. Pickles wrote the noteworthy book New Orleans 1815: Andrew Jackson crushes the British. Mr. Kirkland has artistic creations installed in some of the most high-profile locations in the country.

What a great team to work with and what a great concept for telling the story of the Battle, which will celebrate its bicentennial in January, 2015

chalmette 1

The cool shade of the woodland area will be sensitively developed for access with a raised trail leading to the spot where the honorable Gen. Packingham fell during the battle. (click to enlarge) photo courtesy of the Design Workshop


A massive obelisk is seen from near the point where Britian’s General Packingham fell during the awful battle. The prairie meadow field between, is large.


Sulfur-yellow Zephyr lilies (Zepharanthes citrina) are naturalized in the soon-to-be-native and diverse red-toned prairie meadow.


This area, in the southeastern section of the property has a substantially significant natural wet sedge meadow already existing


The National Cemetery at the east side of the battlefield is quite large and impressive. I recalled this site clearly from when I was last there in elementary school, over forty years ago. It was established in 1864 to inter the the Civil War battle dead of both Confederate and Union forces.


click to enlarge photos




I have had the privilege of working as a consultant for two years now with Design Workshop, during the design phase of the Lafitte Greenway Project, New Orleans. Lafitte is a linear park on the footprint of an old railroad line in the heart of the Treme (pronounced tre-may) section of the City. Its been fun, and very challenging but quite rewarding. We have had to clear some really high hurdles: huge stumbling blocks to our progress. When momentum slowed, Kurt, in his affable manner, would  just roll up his sleeves and get cracking on options, while keeping the ball steadily rolling along.

Ground breaking on the Greenway starts next month with a completion of construction date of around fall of 2014 and the completion and acceptance of the landscaping, about the first day of 2016 (maybe I’m off, with these dates a little). It should be a big shot-in-the-arm for the neighborhoods it passes thru From the Quarter to City Park, Batou St. John area.

What a momentous occasion, the day the ribbon-cutting will be.

check out some links!

the article about the Battlefield competition:

the Design Workshop website is pert special!   http://www.designworkshop.com/index.html

the article in the Lafayette Independent on the Horse Farm design competition: http://www.theind.com/news/indreporter/15233-team-selected-for-horse-farm-design

see Mr. Kirkland’s art:                                             http://www.larrykirkland.com/projects.html

and Mr. Pickles:   http://www.ospreypublishing.com/authors/Tim_Pickles

Cajun prairie Society         http://www.cajunprairie.org/

Thanks to the folks at DW for the power point images!!!

good day ya’ll!