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Growing history:

Celebrating 200-plus years of gardening

This photo, circa 1900-1909 and used with permission from the Alabama Department of Archives and History, shows students working in the garden behind the Fifth District Agricultural School in Wetumpka, which later became Wetumpka High School.

For thousands of years, gardens have been essential parts of our state’s life and culture. As Alabama commemorates its 200th anniversary of statehood this year, here’s a quick snapshot of our gardening history and the plants that have become part of our landscapes and lives through the centuries.

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, southeastern Native Americans — Alabama’s first gardeners — began growing crops of local plants (lambsquarters, sunflowers, other seedbearing plants and possibly squash) some 3,500 or more years ago to supplement their wild food sources.

During the Mississippian Era (1000 to 1500 AD), indigenous Alabama tribes started gardening and farming in earnest, a practice that may well explain our state’s name. Though historians debate the exact origin of the name “Alabama,” many credit it to the Choctaw words alba amo, which translate into “those who clear the land.” Clear the land these early Alabamians did, replacing forests with fields where they grew a variety of crops including monocultures and companion plantings of the “Three Sisters” — beans, squash and corn.

When the first European settlers arrived in Alabama in the 1500 and 1600s, they seized Native American cropland, and seized upon their cropping practices and plants. But they also brought with them an array of plants from the Old World. According to the late Montgomery County Cooperative Extension agent and Alabama garden historian George R. Stritikus, those introduced plants included oranges, oleanders, figs, peaches and possibly wisteria and canna lilies.

During the early 1700s, gardens became status symbols of wealthy Alabama plantation owners and businessmen who created the state’s first “fine” or “pleasure” gardens. These plantings typically contained both food and ornamental plants, many of which mirrored those of their homelands.

By the early 1800s — one of our state’s most tragic historical eras — the importation of slaves from Africa was under way. Along with the slaves came plants of their homelands including okra, kidney and lima beans, black-eyed peas, yams and watermelon.

About this time, those affluent landowners were also importing huge numbers of ornamental plants primarily from France and England, but they soon realized that many of these plants could not survive in the South’s climate. According to Stritikus, the need for new varieties suited for southeastern growing conditions kick-started Alabama’s still-thriving nursery industry.

The science of gardening and farming took a leap forward in the mid 1800s as Alabama developed its land-grant education and research system (Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Experiment Station systems), which helped identify the best plants and planting practices for home gardeners and horticultural professionals alike.

During this era, horticultural and garden societies were also forming. Among the first of these in the South and in the nation was the Chunnenuggee Ridge Horticultural Society, founded in 1847 near Union Springs in Bullock County. By the early 1930s, the Federated Garden Clubs of Alabama was also organized to conserve and expand the state’s woodland environment and increase awareness of landscape beauty.

Through history, our gardening practices and trends have changed — and continue to change — with each new generation of gardeners. As we begin our third century as a state, consider recording your own gardening history with a journal to chronicle your gardening successes and failures, and perhaps someday help add your own story to Alabama’s gardening history.


Garden history resources:

To learn more about the history of gardening, spend some time researching it on your own, or look to the list provided below.

  • The Southern Garden History Society (http://southerngardenhistory.org) is an exceptional resource for information on historic gardens, cultural landscapes and horticultural history.
  • The Alabama Department of Archives and History (www.archives.state.al.us) and other state archival resources offer gardening history records and also educational programs and exhibits on gardening history.
  • Many public gardens (a list can be found at https://alabama.travel/garden-trail) offer educational programs and resources on gardening history and practices.
  • A number of historical societies offer gardening histories and also tend historic gardens that are open to the public.  Check with your local historical society to find out what’s available in your area.

 

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.