March 2015
Farm & Field

Devoted to Dahlias

 
  Last fall, Mary Frances Brosemer and her brother Walter, center, were named an Alabama Century Farm by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. Presenting the award is Terry Martin with ADAI.

Century-Old Brosemer Farm Blossoms Northeast of Huntsville

Few motorists on the heavily trafficked northeast Huntsville road realize they’re passing a family farm that’s well over 100 years old.

They don’t realize the original barn still stands as a kind of recognition for the generations of family members who’ve labored on this ground, whether on the original 200 acres occupying both sides of the road or the present 50 acres.

They don’t realize the operation is now known for 8 acres of stunning flowers, especially the more than 10,000 dahlias raised annually - the biggest harvest in the state.

Last fall, Mary Frances Brosemer and her brother Walter were named an Alabama Century and Heritage Farm by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

Brosemer runs the farm herself today, selling dahlias plus abundant crops of sunflowers and zinnias to local florists and hundreds of customers who shop at the Greene Street and Bailey Cove markets in the spring, summer and early fall.

Dahlias are available in every color except black, in 35 species and over 50,000 hybrids. These are just a few of the 10,000 plants Brosemer raises annually.    

"People place orders, too, for parties and weddings," said Brosemer. "I do some wedding flowers if help is needed."

She keeps a hectic schedule much of the year, but you won’t hear her complain. On this day, she’s busy enchanting a visitor with stories of the family connection dating to 1898 when the farm was purchased. Her great-grandparents moved to the Huntsville area in 1888.

"We were a self-sustaining farm," Brosemer said. "We sold cream and brought it once a week to what was then the L&N Depot in Huntsville."

The cream came from the milk of their Jersey cows, with the family also raising beef cattle and pigs; growing wheat, corn and oats; and tending their beehives.

In their spare time, her grandfather, father and uncle were avid woodworkers. All the judges in town during the 1950s used Brosemer-crafted gavels in their courtrooms. Stumps from chittamwood trees on nearby Wade Mountain were the source of the wood, she said. The trees were often cut down to make a yellow dye.

Dahlias became a large part of the harvest when Brosemer, who had left Huntsville for several decades, returned in the ‘90s and began raising flowers with her sister Teresa. Walter joined them later. Once again, the farm was truly a family effort.

It’s obvious Brosemer enjoys sharing about dahlias. With their availability in every hue except black, she considers them one of the prettiest of flowers. Her largest flowers measure 6 inches across, and the smallest ones are the size of baseballs.

As she speaks, she shows off photo after photo she shot of the flowers last year and highlights her membership in the Dahlia Society of Alabama. Members participate in the organization’s major fundraiser every spring as they sell their flowers at the Bloomin’ Festival in Cullman.

In North Alabama, she said, "We don’t hear as much about them (dahlias). We’re about as far south as they can be raised."

She does have a friend, though, in the society named Kathy Whitfield who grows the blooms in Birmingham. Some of her customers buy flowers in Huntsville because not enough dahlias can be raised there to meet demand.

The blooms’ intriguing history dates to 12th century Aztec culture where they were wildflowers. Historians know the Aztecs grew the flower and even found it helped ease what we know now as epilepsy. Later the Spanish conquistadors introduced the flower to Europe after conquering the Aztecs.

From the first three named species later developed in Spain, 35 species exist today with an incredible number of named hybrids – more than 50,000. Some dahlias look like multi-colored feathers. Others come in bright, spidery shapes. Still others have unique folded petals.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that the flower is so beloved on the Brosemer Farm and among its large, captivated following. As this month begins, the annual sale of the fabled dahlias isn’t far away. On the first of this month the plants are started in cold frames. May 1 is planting day, and the first market opens the same month.

More views of the Brosemer Farm and its fields may be found on the Alabama Dahlia Society website.

For more information on dahlias, go to www.gardenguides.com/124551-history-dahlias.html.

Maureen Drost is a freelance writer from Huntsville.