A love of all things fruit

Story by Kate Musso

Mention Dr. Arlie Powell’s name to a dedicated Alabama gardener and you’re likely to get a smile and an anecdote. The smiles comes from the enthusiastic and effusive manner Dr. Powell brings to every encounter. The anecdote likely relates to a fruit the gardener had never previously grown but does so now with confidence by virtue of Dr. Powell’s expertise and encouragement. 

Dr. Powell co-owns Petals from the Past in Jemison with his son Jason Powell. Petals from the Past is a cornucopia of fruiting plants, hard-to-find perennials, and antique roses meticulously planted and maintained on dozens of Chilton County acres. 

Dr. Powell acquired his deep knowledge of fruits through his earlier career as an extension fruit specialist/professor in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama and as an Auburn University horticultural professor. The author of over 300 works, including a definitive book on Georgia citrus, Dr. Powell is the embodiment of a walking encyclopedia. And his wisdom isn’t limited to the printed page; his YouTube series on blackberry trellising and pruning has racked up more than 200,000 views. His method of growing blackberries is often referred to as pioneering. It involves cane selection and trellising to reduce disease exposure, optimize growing conditions, and facilitate easier harvesting. Jason Powell half-jokingly notes that it also eliminates unwelcome encounters with green snakes that so often arise when picking blackberries.

A brief profile like this can only scratch the surface of what you can learn from an expert like Dr. Powell or his equally talented son.

For the new home fruit gardener, Dr. Powell recommends fig as one of the easiest fruits to grow in Alabama. He notes that a tree can be frozen to the ground, like our most recent winter, and still produce fruit that season. He recommends the sweet/tart variety ‘LSU Purple’, which is self-fertile. One drawback to figs is that they have no stored starch and will not ripen further after picking. Therefore, they should be picked at their peak and consumed immediately. As a practical matter, birds competing for the fruit will motivate the gardener to pick daily. 

Dr. Powell’s love of all things citrus is evident when he recites the history of satsumas in the Deep South. Satsumas were planted in coastal areas as a replacement for the heavily harvested longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) early in the last century. Grown from the Florida Panhandle over to Texas, satsumas were shipped by train to ready markets up north. The crop’s success peaked at 20,000 acres in cultivation at the start of World War I and struggled thereafter until it finally collapsed after two hard freezes following World War II. Dr. Powell has been a keen proponent of the satsumas’ revival as well as an enthusiast for kumquats and Meyer lemons, varieties of which are all available for purchase at Petals from the Past. In addition, they also post a schedule for pick-your-own fruit.

A brief profile like this can only scratch the surface of what you can learn from an expert like Dr. Powell or his equally talented son. There’s a whole world of grapes, blueberries, Oriental persimmons, and Asian pears to be explored. Why not make a day of it? Order a box lunch, attend one of Dr. Powell’s monthly workshops, and then stroll the grounds, which are filled with antique roses, fruit trees, pollinator plants, and a very friendly yellow Lab.

Photo courtesy of Petals from the Past, petalsfromthepast.com.

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