I am a self-taught naturalist and native plant enthusiast. I serve as the education committee chair on the board of directors at Ruffner Mountain Nature Center in Birmingham, Alabama.

I have spent the last two years spearheading the native plant restoration and rain garden projects at the newly constructed LEED built Center. These projects are part of the larger Integrated Environmental Education Garden plan to enhance Ruffner Mountain Nature Center's campus and its programming. I lead garden programs at the Center, Audubon Mountain Workshop, Birmingham area botanical gardens, and local garden clubs.

When I am not talking, working or thinking about gardening, I am designing and making slipcovers in a studio behind my house. Lately, my business (Coverings) has been taking a back seat to my more naturalist leanings. Writing a blog is a new adventure for me.



Audubon Mountain Workshop and Lookout Mountain
by Michelle Reynolds - posted 03/31/13


One of my favorite spots in Alabama to visit is within the Cumberland Plateau and in the Southern Appalachians. In the northeast corner of the state, there is a quaint little village on top of Lookout Mountain. The town of Mentone is a popular destination for those who want to escape the modern stresses of urban life and return to the simple life of days past. A long weekend spent exploring the woods, creeks, and rocky bluffs, and being surrounded by the natural beauty of the mountain, of nearby De Soto State Park, and of Little River Canyon National Preserve is definitely a reset button. Rustic cabins everywhere, Civilian Conservation Corp-built structures of the State Park and Preserve, remnants of Native American life, the whole area is steeped in history. Even in the most recent of constructions, there is a visible importance placed by the community in keeping with the rustic traditions. There are many camps and retreats around Mentone for children and adults alike who share these values.


Audubon Mountain Workshop is the camp I love to go to and I look forward to it every year. It is held in May (usually during Mother's Day weekend, which is how I got hooked into going with my mother in the first place) at the Alpine Camp for Boys located in a wonderland between the State Park and the Mentone brow. The lodge, the dining hall, and several other structures and cabins are built in the Adirondack style. Except for a few newer log cabins, most of the guest cabins are screened-in, open-air and outfitted with the typical summer-camp beds. 


The setting is magical. Anyone who attends the workshop and stays in the camp is immediately transported back to childhood. As soon as the campers get out of their cars to register for the nature camp, they turn into kids. This is true even for the professors. The beauty of the place and the camaraderie between campers and instructors makes for a comfortable ease in the outdoor education experience. Information on so many topics of the natural world flows like the river through the camp.


The West Fork of the Little River runs through Alpine Camp. The banks are blanketed with heavy thickets of rhododendrons and mountain laurel, and the blooming period of these evergreens usually coincides with our arrival. The forest floor surrounding camp is carpeted with eastern prickly gooseberry (Ribes cynosbati). Pathways through the woods are lined with an array of wild native grasses and flowers. Behind the camp is a sandstone rock outcrop. I spend most of my free time at camp on studying the plants there. I am in love with the plant community that grows on the thin soils of sandstone glades. A glade is an open area where the rock substrate is at or near the surface, and soils are so thin, trees and shrubs would find it difficult to grow. Growing on the glade behind the camp, is prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa), Menges fameflower (Phemeranthus mengesii), elf orpine (Diamorpha smallii), stitchwort (Minuartia glabra), and sunnybells (Schoenolirion croceum). 


I get to teach the Succulents of Alabama class on the screen porch of this cabin. Examples of native succulents can be found within a few minute walk.


The courses I teach are Gardening for Wildlife and Succulents of Alabama. These are easy programs for me to lead in the camp's location as the setting has many scenes for learning how to integrate natural systems into the home landscape. The participants are always eager to learn about native plants for attracting wildlife and ready to put into practice the naturalistic methods for solving landscape problems in their yards. For the succulents program, all we have to do is walk up the hill to the glade to see the prickly pear and fameflower and then down by the river to see stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) on the rocks.


Little River runs nearly its entire length on top of Lookout Mountain carving a deep gorge as it goes.


On the way home from camp, I always have to stop at the Lynn Overlook (my first stop of many) along the Canyon Rim Drive. Taking the scenic drive through Little River Canyon is a geology lesson if you stop at the overlooks, peer over the edge to the narrow river on the canyon floor, scan 600 feet from the floor back up to the rim to see the rock layers. You can't help but try to wrap your head around how long it must have taken the river to cut through Lookout Mountain to make this "Grand Canyon of the South." Along the rim of the sandstone bluffs, there are open and thin-soil areas where the forest has not been able to succeed. They resemble islands in the sense that they are sunny and open spots surrounded by a sea of trees. I love the rim of the Little River Canyon and its rock islands. The rock surfaces are slightly sloped and pocked and very moonlike in appearance. On the rock's surface, only lichens can take hold. In the surface depressions and crevices that hold water, mosses grow with the lichens. A little soil accumulates, and seeds are then allowed to settle and sprout. And on these rock islands and under these conditions, islands of vegetation are born. Rare plants that thrive on the rocky surfaces with thin soils must be relics of ancient prairies, migrating to open areas as they were pushed out by successional forests, and as they evolved over time to deal with the harsh conditions of the rocky glades, they settled to live in the extremes the glades offer. Through conditions of hot and dry, cold and rainy, these plants thrive in this environment now because of less competition. Still the forest tries to succeed but pines, oaks, and other trees in this environment often are stunted and have a bonsai appearance. On the margins of the glades where more soil and water accumulates, wet prairie plants thrive. Further away where the soils deepen still, sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum), hawthorns (Crataegus), and larger species set hold and create the forest margins. 



Little River Canyon onion is extremely rare outside of the canyon.


Elf orpine grows in the depressions where vernal pools form on sandstone glades. These succulent annuals plump up, bloom, and later when the soils dry up, the plants wither and reseed for the following year.


As if the pitcher plant wasn't beautiful enough, the plants put on spectacular blooms too!


The sandstone glade plant community in Little River Canyon includes elf orpine (Diamorpha smallii), Nuttall's rayless goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii), woodland tickseed (Coreopsis pulchra), long-leaved sunflowers (Helianthus longifolius), sandwort (Minuartia glabra), pineweed (Hypericum gentianoides), rush-foil (Crotonopsis elliptica), small-headed blazing-star (Liatris microcephala), Little River Canyon onion (Allium speculae), and Harper's dodder (Cuscuta harperi). Along the edges of the glade and in wetter conditions, Virginia buttonweed (Diodia virginiana), sunnybells (Schoenolirion croceum), meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana), and Curtiss' milkwort (Polygala curtissii) grow. In a nearby bog, white colic root (Aletris farinosa) and mountain pitcher plants (Sarracenia oreophila) can be found.


Curtiss' milkwort grows in the wetter areas on the edges of sandstone glades.



In late summer after the mosses crisp up from the hot sun, Nuttall's rayless goldenrod and woodland tickseed provide a burst of color.



Audubon Mountain Workshop will be held Thursday, May 9th through Sunday the 12th. One of the camp's offerings this year is a trip to the Little River Canyon National Reserve. We'll take campers over to the canyon to study the plant communities of the glades, prairies, scrubby woodlands, and bogs along the scenic Canyon Rim Drive. I can't wait! For more information on the camp and how you can register, go to:  http://www.birminghamaudubon.org/education/amw 









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Christopher (Louisiana - Zone 8a) - 04/09/2013

As a boy, my family used to visit Lookout Mountain. I was always amazed at the natural beauty of the local flora and fauna. It was a nice escape into the mountainous wilderness for a child raised in the perfectly flat concrete jungle of New Orleans. As soon as we arrived, my brother and I were instantly transformed into pioneers exploring the uncharted American territory.
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Michelle Reynolds - 04/09/2013

I am glad my post reminded you of your youth and adventurous spirit. Lookout Mountain brings that out in me as well. Lets never lose that sense of wonder and adventure!
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