Nurserywoman Jan Midgley celebrates the richness of Alabama’s flora
by CAROL BISHOP MILLER photography by MARY GRAY HUNTER
“I CAN’T TELL YOU HOW TO GET THERE,” an officer of the law once told a customer searching for Jan Midgley’s nursery. “I’ll just take you.” Miles from the main highway, down a zigzag series of winding, two-lane blacktops, at the end of a gravel road, Midgley’s home and her business, Wildflower, are—for the present, at least—safely remote from the sprawl of new construction rapidly changing the character of once-rural Shelby County, southeast of Birmingham, Alabama.
“Dean and I call this place sanctuary,” says Midgley, a trim woman with eyes as blue as her work shirt, and silver-blonde hair swept up into a soft bun. “We find peace and quiet here.”
Peace, perhaps, but not idleness. A past director and longtime program committee member for the annual Cullowhee (North Carolina) Native Plant Conference, author, lecturer, photographer, and, of course, nurserywoman, this former nurse and classically trained flutist is rarely at rest. Much the same can be said for her partner, Dean Clark, a tree and shrub broker whose own business is fittingly called Restless Natives.
A NURSERYWOMAN’S ROOTS A gardener for over 30 years, Midgley credits her upbringing in rural and small-town Missouri for her fascination with gardening and nature, and her strict, private girls” school classical education for developing her thorough, scientific methodology. Midgley’s first nursery, in Maryland, grew out of an annual fund-raising flower sale for her son’s school over 20 years ago. Even then she kept meticulous records of her propagation techniques, recording the planting and germination dates and other relevant details for every batch of seed.
An avid “ditch botanist,” Midgley has done most of her seed collecting in Alabama and Georgia. “I like to collect seed to maintain the biodiversity. I will take cuttings when I am out if that’s all I can do, but I’d really rather collect seed than clone.”
Jan Midgley propagates blue phlox, Phlox divaricata (left), bluets, Houstonia caerulea (right), and bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis (opposite) from local sources, but never collects more than 10 percent of the seed from a stand of plants so that it can replenish itself.
The rustic wood and stone home Midgley and Clark have shared for seven years rides the crest of a ridge wooded with oak, hickory, and pine, and peers down a sloping centipede-grass lawn (which the pair plan to replace with a meadow of native grasses) to a small pond circled by young pines. At the rear of the house, an expansive deck—embedded in a fluff of such native shrubs as Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), and Florida anise (Illicium floridanum)—overlooks a shady lawn bordered by a semicircular understory shade garden. Here, among native wildflowers, blueberries (at least four Vaccinium species are endemic to the site), and hellebores, delicious treasures are to be found.
The bewitching Delphinium alabamicum raises spires of intensely blue, prominently spurred flowers from a spout of leaves resembling those of wild geranium. This exceedingly rare creature from neighboring Jefferson County is normally found on limier ground, Midgley notes. Nearby, Asclepias variegata, a milkweed found naturally on this sandy, dry, acidic hillside, prepares to open terminal umbels of purple-centered, milk-white blossoms.
Around the edges of the back lawn, the land drops abruptly away. The hollow on the west side of the yard holds the shade nursery—dozens of rows, hundreds of pots of ferns, hostas, hellebores, woodland wildflowers, and other shade-loving perennials. “Hellebores and ferns keep us alive so we can do the native things,” Midgley explains of her largely wholesale enterprise. From here a road bordered by a rail fence enshrouded with the native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) swings around the rear of the five-acre property, past a vegetable garden to an L-shaped clearing that holds the main production area for what Midgley says the late J.C. Raulston, founding director of the North Carolina State Arboretum, would have called a “one-wheelbarrow nursery.”
NATIVE TREASURES Blocks of potted sun-worshiping perennials bask between carefully timed showers from elevated sprinklers. Among such familiar favorites as garden phlox and Penstemon digitalis, some rising stars stand out. Short-lived but an avid self-seeder, Gaura lindheimeri ‘Dauphine’, from coastal Alabama’s Dauphin Island, raises swarms of fluttery pink blossoms on wiry wands. With foliage as soft and dainty as a kitten’s paw, star tickseed (Coreopsis pubescens var. pubescens) presents sunny yellow composite flowers from June to October. “And I haven’t a clue why this Asclepias sullivantii isn’t more available,” she says of a sleek, narrow-leaved milkweed that sports umbels of subtle, dark pink flowers in summer.
The Meaning of Provenance
Provenance is a term used to describe a plant’s geographic origin. Many plant species have a wide geographic range, and local populations may differ significantly in their genetic makeup. These adaptations to the local climate may affect a plant’s viability if it is moved to a distant location. Red maple seeds collected from wild populations in Horida, for example, are likely to yield plants far less hardy than those grown from Canadian-collected seeds. Growers of prairie grasses in the Midwest have concluded that seed should be moved no more than two degrees of latitude north, or three degrees south, or about 140 and 210 miles, respectively.
Part of the concern about provenance is a desire to preserve the genetic variation of wild populations and not dilute it by promiscuous distribution. That, however, is best addressed on a species-by-species basis. Investigations of the common cattail in North America, for example, have shown that, in fact, it exhibits essentially no genetic variation.
For the home gardener, knowing the ultimate source of a particular specimen (its true origin, not merely the nursery from which it comes) is a useful guide, but not a guarantee of success. Indeed, certain glacial relicts are hardier than their current location suggests. Magnolia ashei–which is now native only to the Florida panhandle—is in fact hardy as far north as Toronto. The only sure way to know whether a new plant will do well in your own garden is to try it.–the editors
Within the trio of greenhouses nearby, more temptation abounds, as everywhere one turns, there’s something the incurable collector really needs—most of it native to the region. What about the graceful Hypericum densiflorum ‘Creel’s Gold Star’, a woody Saint-John’s-wort with narrow, leathery, evergreen leaves on frondlike branches and multitudinous fuzzy golden summer flowers? Or the Carolina bush pea (Thermopsis villosa), with its torchlike, lemon-yellow blooms glowing above cool, blue-green leaves? Why not the stunning copper iris (I. fulva), its pot resting in a pan of water to simulate the swamp it loves? A butterfly gardener might even find irresistible the poor Asclepias incarnata, with its leaves rapidly vanishing into the voracious mouths of its swelling cloak of monarch caterpillars.
“I’m not a purist,” Midgley says. “I don’t have a problem with people growing exotics. I’d always said that I was against exotics if they pushed out other plants and became a monoculture, which is not a healthy situation for insects, birds—anything. Well, I still believe that, but now I’m leery of any garden plant that comes from another country if it can seed into undisturbed soil and become established. That’s when the red flag should go up.
“I’ve eliminated Iris pseudacorus from my list,” she says of this vigorous colonizer of stream and lake margins, originally brought to America from Europe. “I’ve not seen it to be a problem in Alabama, but it is in other states. I decided to find a different yellow iris, and now I’m selling a creamy yellow Louisiana iris. I don’t have to sell a plant that might become a problem.”
At the elbow-height potting table in the main greenhouse, Midgley’s current work-in-progress is dividing native grasses (“major, major elbow grease!”) for a re-creation of the state’s largely vanished Black Belt prairie being prepared at the University of Alabama Arboretum in Tuscaloosa. Part of a master plan designed by Darrel Morrison, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Georgia and conceptual architect of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas, the replica will feature an acre of herbaceous native prairie plants, 75 percent of them grasses.
“I’ve been waiting for someone to want me to grow native grasses. I’m so pleased they’ve given me an excuse, because this project has real integrity. It’s going to be very authentic,” Midgley says. She had already made several collecting trips through the state’s Black Belt counties when she was asked by the university to supply plants for the prairie reproduction. “I don’t really have the proper set-up, but I agreed to grow the plugs for them just because I wanted to be involved. It was just serendipity that I had grass seeds from Alabama and someone needed them.”
“When I can’t count on anything else happening the same way in the rest of my life, I can count on the monarchs coming back to that milkweed every year. I just think it’s miraculous, the whole intricacy required.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF ORIGIN Midgley claims that 80 percent of the plants she sells are from Alabama or Georgia. “I think provenance is so important,” she says, crediting J. C. Raulston with acquainting her with the term. (See, “The Meaning of Provenance,” page 59.) “One time I bought a swamp sunflower, just the common Helianthus angustifolius, that was grown in North Carolina, and carried it home to Maryland. It was absolutely beautiful that fall; then it died flat out. I’ve learned since that that’s one of the plants that’s very fussy about where it’s come from. It may be the the exact same species, but you’d better get local genetic material if you want it to be long-lived.
“Spigelia [Indian pink] is another one. I have four plants out there from Harpersville, which is just, as the crow flies, three miles from here. Another plant was given to me in Memphis. Every year the Memphis plant comes up later and the leaves turn yellow until I lime it. They have limier soil up there, and here that plant just pukes along.”
Midgley feels so strongly about the importance of provenance to a plant’s potential for success that her sales list notes the state of origin beside a plant’s name, if she knows it. “The asters in the trade don’t do well for me here,” she says. “But I found this blue aster, Aster hemispherica, in a ditch. It gets only two and a half feet tall and makes a nice winter rosette.” The New England aster (A. novaeangliae) on her list is a strain found near Selma.
Midgley accepts no mail orders and does retail sales only by appointment—and not just because her nursery requires detailed instructions to find. “I definitely feel that part of what I’m about is educating. Not part—that’s really what I’m here for. That’s why I prefer having my customers come by appointment. I’m not interested in them just picking up whatever they see that looks pretty in bloom. I want them to buy plants that are going to stay alive at their house, that belong in their yard. I don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, that plant died. Would you like to replace it?”’
An oft-repeated myth would have it that natives are easier to maintain than exotics. “If they’re planted in the plant community that they originally occur in, they do require less maintenance. A native is not different from an exotic, in that you have to pick the right site, otherwise you have to fix the soil, and you may have to water, and the plant may still limp along.”
Midgley grows very few woody plants. She does, however, produce one-gallon containers of a few native shrubs that are rare to nonexistent in the trade, such as Croton alabamensis, Viburnum acerifolium, and Stewartia malacodendron. She’s experimenting to find an effective technique to root cuttings of a yellow-flowering sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) that she claims has the fragrance of Juicy Fruit gum.
The greenhouse area drains into a low field leading toward the pond. “My best garden is my wet meadow,” Midgley says. “It has very deep, good soil, and in the summer it’s the absolute prettiest garden here. Hibiscus moscheutos, swamp rose [Rosa palustris], Rudbeckia laciniata, blue flag [I. virginica], Asclepias incarnata, A. sullivantii, glade mallow [Napaea dioica], Eryngium aquaticum—everything’s in there, and I get a lot of seed out of it. The only problem is it’s a weed nightmare, because I just don’t have the time to take care of it.”
LINKS IN THE CHAIN In her book, Southeastern Wildflowers (Crane Hill Publishers, 1999, also published in seven state-titled versions by Sweetwater Press, 1999), an authoritative guide to the identification, lore, cultivation, and propagation of wildflowers common to Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee, Midgley treats the reader to enticing tidbits about the plants she profiles. When preparing prickly pear cactus for the table, for example, one should use a small propane torch (the kind Martha Stewart uses to brown a meringue, one supposes) to singe the spines from fruit or stems before peeling. She tells how Native Americans used many plants, and most compellingly, she describes the connections between plants and the animals that depend on them. “For me, that’s a lot of the fascination of native plants, because there is a link between that plant and some insect, and it gives me a sense of peace or connectedness to the earth to know that there is some plan. When I can’t count on anything else happening the same way in the rest of my life, I can count on the monarchs coming back to that milkweed every year,” she laughs. “I just think it’s miraculous, the whole intricacy required. I guess that’s part of why I like trying to keep certain unusual plants alive and keeping the genetic diversity going by growing from seed, because it makes me feel like I might be keeping something important alive. There could be keystones that we’re dependent on. We need to protect every little bit of nature that we can, because we never know what might be linked to it.”
If You Go Jan Midgley’s nursery is open by appointment only. To set up a visit, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.