A Growing Friendship
With guidance from noted landscape architect and Birmingham native Thomas Rainer, a new vision for the Kaul Wildflower Garden honors the garden’s rich history and exceptional native plant collection.
By Molly Hendry
The best gardens are like friends. In friendship there are rhythms you come to expect, the comfort of the known. But there is also the spark of possibility, a forward-looking vision toward what is to come. Friendship does not happen in a moment but is forged through a series of experiences, the richness multiplied by that sweet layer of time.
One of my most trusted garden comrades is the Kaul Wildflower Garden at the Gardens’ northern tip. Its rock outcroppings are the backbone against which the layers of the seasons ebb and flow. Day by day its structure is steady, yet its collection is always a newfound delight.
The garden and I were acquaintances when I was a little girl growing up in Birmingham, just brief meetings when my mom would herd my sisters and me up to its rocky ledges with picnic lunch in tow. Just two years ago our paths crossed again. I saw the garden with new eyes, realizing that what I had assumed as a child was wild and untamed was instead meticulously crafted and very purposeful.
As with many friends, you learn a lot about them by understanding the people who have been a part of their story. The first chapter of the Kaul Wildflower Garden begins in the early 1960s with a band of women led by the gusto of Bobbe Kaul, eager to create a space at the Gardens that celebrates the diverse native flora of Alabama. An old sandstone rock quarry, abandoned shortly after the Great Depression and overgrown with honeysuckle and Japanese privet, was identified as a prime location. After Mrs. Kaul saw photos of Leonard J. Buck’s private garden in Far Hills, New Jersey, she was determined to have the same designer for Birmingham’s new wildflower garden. So the Swiss-born landscape architect Zenon Schreiber of New York was tapped as the craftsman who would unearth the garden from the rubble of the old quarry.
“The Kaul Wildflower Garden is rich with topographic and spatial diversity, providing a variety of habitats to show native plants in their best light. The diversity of its collection rivals that of any garden in the United States.” —landscape architect Thomas Rainer
Left to right: Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), oakleaf hydrangea
(Hydrangea quercifolia), and trout lily (Erythronium americanum).
Schreiber began work in February 1966, initiating a decade-long endeavor that created the garden’s structural framework. Instead of drawing up fancy plans, he would come to Birmingham for three to four weeks at a time and direct the garden’s construction on-site. He was often in the creek determining the placement of stone or scaling the slopes of the garden to ensure the proper alignment of the path. Schreiber’s genius was in his ability to meet the natural qualities of a site with a designer’s kiss. He did not apply a heavy hand to the land but drew out of the wilderness what was inherently there, revealing a garden that was a resounding echo of its context.
It has been over 50 years since Schreiber was working in Kaul, yet the garden is still in motion. The collection that Bobbe Kaul initiated, filled with many plants saved from the ravages of development, is now in the care of Kaul Wildflower Garden Curator John Manion, whose passion for native plants is contagious. Over the past 10 years, John has doubled the number of native species to 900, an enviable number for those in colder regions of the Eastern U.S. This enthusiasm has spilled out beyond the garden into an array of volunteer opportunities and educational classes. In 2019, over 1,000 volunteer hours of work were completed by a core team of volunteers. More than 70 students have completed the Certificate in Native Plant Studies, and our Native Plant propagation group grows a large percentage of the native plants available at our annual plant sales on-site. The garden is also outward-facing, inspiring many field trips to the native habitats that Kaul celebrates.
The creek, which runs along the western side of Kaul, is the showpiece of Schreiber’s handiwork.
It’s hard to tell which stones were placed by nature and which were crafted by him.
The rich history of Kaul coupled with the zeal surrounding native plants has the garden poised for dynamic development into the future. In the spring of 2019, internationally known landscape architect (and Birmingham native) Thomas Rainer of Phyto Studio in Washington, D.C., was invited to spend a day and a half conducting a visioning workshop for the garden. Much of the spatial composition that Schreiber worked within has changed over the decades as trees have been lost, the collection has diversified, shrubs have matured, and surrounding areas have been developed. The outcome of the workshop was a report that provides guiding principles for Kaul’s future development and divides the garden into 12 distinct zones, each with its own spatial identity, unified palette of plants, and an understanding of its desired ecological trajectory. The goal for each zone is to distill the patterns and species to evoke a single wild reference point, with sweeps of successive color that draw visitors into the depths of the garden.
The question we strive to answer echoes that of Bobbe Kaul and her wildflower comrades: How can the Kaul Wildflower Garden inspire next generations to steward Alabama’s natural treasures?
I believe the answer is held within its little moments, the ones that take you from a mere acquaintance to a deeper friendship, season after season. The first bloodroot appearing at the tail end of winter. Trout lilies and trillium cascading down the sides of the creek. Wild geraniums billowing against the coarse rocks. Dogwood blooms reaching out from the edge of the woodland. Morning light catching the dew on mayapples carpeting the forest floor. Woodland phlox rippling along the edge of paths. Craggy mountain laurel bursting into blooming clusters. Delicate maidenhair ferns emerging after the spring rains subside. The coolness of the bubbling creek contrasted with the hot hum of insects in the meadow in summer. Crisp fall days when our attention lifts back up to the trees and their fiery glory. By the time the peaceful quiet of winter descends, we are left in eager anticipation of those first bloodroot blooms to signal the start of nature’s thrilling dance again.
It isn’t any single moment that makes Kaul a mighty force. It’s all those little moments knitted together, growing a friendship that we hope will bloom in succeeding generations, inspiring them to protect and nurture these wonders that we hold so dear.
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), a structural evergreen through most of the year,
bursts into soft pink blooms in spring.