Northern Alabama: Discovering Natives with our Neighbors
Though I’ve travelled throughout the United States, it never seems to be enough. The United States is so huge, and every state and region has its own unique features; sugar white beaches, rocky cliffs, huge peaked mountains, rolling hills, prairies and alpine meadows. Every state is diverse, and each season brings different wildflowers and foliage. Spring is nothing like fall, winter or summer. Newly emerging leaves in spring are translucent, ephemeral, pale green. Fall evolves to the crisp oranges, reds and yellows. I want to see it all……over and over.
Last October, my husband and I set off “to see what we could see”. We had never spent much time in north Alabama, but it was a day’s drive away and far enough north to support different plant communities than Florida. In anticipation, we poured through magazines, websites and joined the Alabama Wildflower Society (AWS), the Alabama equivalent of our Florida Native Plant Society.
Then we found Linda. Actually, I think, Linda found us; two lost souls wandering through the Alabama Wildflower Society website. You see, Linda has been involved in the AWS for quite some time and she was thrilled to hear that some of the Florida members are interested in her state. We became fast friends, just over the phone. But that’s the south, where everyone is “Darlin” and no one is a stranger even if you just met, especially if you are another native plant lover. The world does not know more welcoming people than native plant people!
When we arrived in Birmingham, Linda was waiting for us, along with about 20 other local native plant enthusiasts. You see, she had already contacted the native plant members in her area and they were ready and eager to showcase their state.
Marty Shulman, the retired Land Manager of Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, explained how Birmingham became one of the top steel producing regions in the country, first utilizing Longleaf Pines for the process, then moving on to coal, just as the pines were nearly depleted. Iron ore, coal and limestone are the three ingredients needed to make steel and central Alabama has all three. Thus, explains the 56-foot-tall cast iron statue of Vulcan, the Roman God of fire and forge, in the center of Birmingham.
Charles Yeager, Manager of Turkey Creek Preserve, in the heart of the Birmingham, explained how this inter-city preserve had been abandoned by all and utilized by gangs who drove their cars into the river to wash them. When the land was at its bleakest point, the city proposed building a prison on the site. But to the local residents, this was the last straw. They rose up, banded together and demanded the city preserve it. Today, it is a beautiful urban renewal project, much loved and used by the local residents.
While visiting the Birmingham Botanical Gardens we met John Manion, Curator of the Kaul Wildflower Garden, a 17-acre garden within the main Garden. John is the charming personality who created the native plant studies program at the Gardens. He also manages one of the world’s rarest plants, the Tutwiler’s spleenwort, Asplenium tutwilerae, a fern so rare that less than 5 acres of land hold the only known population in the world.
As we ventured north from Birmingham, the terrain became more rugged, sporting steep canyons with gorges sliced by rivers and streams.
Linda set up a meeting with more locals, like Jim and Fay Lacefield, two school teachers who saved their own salaries and bit-by-bit bought up 700 acres of canyon land with coursing streams, then, gave it away! In perpetuity, Cane Creek Canyon Preserve will remain a wilderness area protected by The Nature Conservancy, thanks to two people who had the love and foresight to preserve it.
On to Huntsville where the US Space and Rocket Center is located, the sister facility to Cape Canaveral, and Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, a 37,000 acre preserve for migrating birds, established by FD Roosevelt. Just to the east is Scottsboro and underground is one of the most beautiful caverns in the United States. Cathedral Caverns State Park has some of the largest chambers in a cave system that I’ve ever seen. One stalagmite is the size of a school bus and bears witness to the earthquakes the region has recently endured.
As we fanned over to the northeast corner of the state we crossed a national preserve, part of the US National Park System. Cousin to our western parks, and equally impressive, the Little River Canyon National Preserve sports a river flowing atop a mountain. The steep canyon walls, appropriately named "Little River", are the most extensive canyon and gorge system in the eastern United States, and habitat for the carnivorous green pitcher plant and Kral’s water plantains.