Plant Conference Speakers

Chris Bennett is a forager, writer, cheesemonger, and trained chef. Since 2005, he has roamed the picturesque grassy hollows, dense forest and open fields of the Appalachian foothills in central-east Alabama for wild edibles. Chris enjoys working with top chefs in Birmingham and provides unique ingredients to the area’s best restaurants. He has been featured in Birmingham Magazine, Cooking Light, Garden & Gun, Discover St. Clair, and The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook. He is a frequent speaker, having presented sessions at food and wine festivals throughout the southeast. Additionally, he offers workshops on seasonal wild edibles at his family’s farm, leading eager participants with adventurous palates to graze on wild riches. His first book, Foraging the Southeast: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Angelica to Wild Plums, was published by Timber Press in April 2015.

Sara Bright is the co-author of Butterflies of Alabama: Glimpses into Their Lives. Her photography and Paulette Ogard’s text chronicle the life histories of 84 species of Alabama’s butterflies and the plants on which they depend. The volume was the culmination of fourteen years of research that included fieldwork throughout the state and other parts of the southeast. The two continue to collaborate on butterfly-related projects.

Paulette Haywood Ogard is the co-author of Butterflies of Alabama: Glimpses into Their Lives. Her text and Sara Bright’s photography chronicle the life histories of 84 species of Alabama’s butterflies and the native plants on which they depend. They continue their twenty-year collaboration to document the life histories of southeastern butterflies, engaging in field research that takes them throughout the south.

Gloria Clemmensen is a garden designer and consultant who focuses on mixed container plantings. She is a participant in the Certificate in Native Plant Studies program at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and has recently designed three gardens which feature natives. After studying horticulture at Mississippi State University, Gloria graduated from the University of South Carolina with a Master of Fine Arts Degree. For thirteen years she taught art, art history and Governor's School and Honors Seminars at Samford University. While teaching in Samford's London Studies Program, she led alumni tours of British gardens. Her current work is focused on introducing natives to as many gardens as possible.

Tom Diggs is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of North Georgia. He teaches botany, plant physiology, and identification of vascular flora, and his research focuses on the evolution, geography, and conservation of rare and endemic plants. His passion is the native flora of the southeastern US, and you can often find him in some inhospitable swamp or on the face of a cliff, camera in hand, mulling over a botanical mystery.

Writer and naturalist Bill Finch, through his weekly newspaper column and radio and TV shows, has long been a guide to Alabama's natural riches. His news and environmental reporting for newspapers in Selma, Anniston and Mobile have won numerous regional and national awards. He has been state director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy and executive director of Mobile Botanical Gardens. Bill’s first book, Longleaf Far as the Eye Can See, published by University of North Carolina Press, is now in its second printing. Bill is hard at work on another book, and is helping to direct a broad conservation effort aimed at preserving the history, culture and biodiversity of the Alabama River and Mobile-Tensaw Delta and Bluffs region.

Suzanne Langley is Executive Director of Birmingham Audubon Society: Suzanne Langley joined Birmingham Audubon in July 2012 as its first executive director. This central Alabama membership organization, founded in 1946, is dedicated to conservation, birds and their habitat, and a greater knowledge of natural history. Suzanne has worked in bird conservation with Audubon for ten years in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, where she was also part of a landowners’ cooperative to manage and restore warm season grasses and prairie habitat. She served as a steering committee member for development of National Audubon’s Bird Friendly Communities programming, and represented 500 chapters in the strategic planning process for the 110-year-old organization.

Michelle Reynolds, a writer, artist, and naturalist, is on a mission to teach others how to put nature back into urban landscapes. As president of Birmingham Audubon's Society’s Board of Directors, she is using the Urban Bird Habitat Initiative to raise public awareness and vision of creating wildlife habitat in urban settings. She leads garden projects, programs and field trips for local and regional organizations. As a contributing writer and columnist for Alabama Gardener magazine, she hopes to reach readers and help them connect to larger ecological issues.

Jeff Lowenfels is founder of Plant a Row for The Hungry, America’s longest running garden columnist, author of two award-winning books on the science of organic gardening with a third at the publisher (Teaming With Microbes, Jeff’s first book, has been translated into seven languages) and a determined and dogged advocate of organics and protecting the soil food web. Don’t let Lowenfels’ reputation for being the funniest and most entertaining horticultural speaker on the circuit fool you: spend one hour laughing in a Lowenfels seminar and you will never garden the same again.

Lea Ann Macknally is a licensed Landscape Architect and President of Macknally Land Design. Over 15 years of professional experience have allowed her to foster a passion for design of civic spaces and integrated sustainable design, including native plantings and innovative stormwater management. This focus has led to opportunities to lead nationally recognized projects such as Railroad Park, Benjamin Russell Children’s Hospital campus and Alabama National Cemetery.

John Manion is the Kaul Wildflower Garden Curator at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, where, in addition to managing its extensive native plant collections, he developed and administers a Certificate in Native Plant Studies program – now in its fourth year. As a member of the Alabama Plant Conservation Alliance, John is involved with the conservation of several Alabama endangered plants. John graduated from The State University of New York with a Bachelor’s Degree in Plant Science, and then from Cornell University with a Master’s Degree in Public Garden Leadership at Cornell University. He has interned and held positions at several public gardens in the US and abroad, most recently as Historic Gardens Curator at The Atlanta History Center.

Brooke McMinn, Plant Adventures Program Specialist at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, came to The Gardens from the Rutgers University Extension and New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, where she worked as a horticultural agent, Master Gardener program coordinator and plant breeding researcher. A graduate of Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Plant Science, Brooke’s horticultural specialties are medicinal and economic botany. Brooke says, "Every plant has a story to tell that helps people to connect with it. I love finding those stories and sharing them with others to deepen our connection to the natural world."

Dr. Larry Mellichamp is recently retired Professor of Botany and Horticulture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he taught for over 38 years. He was also director of their 10-acre Botanical Gardens which includes many native plants. Larry is an expert on native plants of all kinds, and has written many technical and popular articles on plants and gardening. He has received several teaching awards and written the recent book, Native Plants of the Southeast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 460 Species for the Garden.

Preston Montague is an artist, educator, and landscape designer who developed a passion for the natural world while growing up in the rural foothills of Virginia. Currently, he works in Raleigh, North Carolina, focusing on projects that spark curiosity about nature and encourage stronger relationships between people and their environment. Preston holds a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from North Carolina State University as well as Bachelor Degrees in Horticulture Fine Art. His latest body of work, Old North Alphabet, is a series of didactic botanical illustrations using art and storytelling to foster natural science literacy.

Zac Napier graduated from Birmingham-Southern College with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology and since 2011 has been employed as Land Steward for the Freshwater Land Trust. As Land Steward, he monitors and manages 5,000 acres of conservation lands across North Central Alabama, while also performing various conservation restorations and projects. Zac has been instrumental in locating species of plants never before documented for Jefferson County, and is a talented photographer; his photos have appeared in notable publications.

Thomas Rainer is a registered landscape architect, teacher, and writer living in Arlington, Virginia. Thomas’ passionate advocacy for an ecologically expressive design aesthetic has made him one of the leading voices in resilient landscape design. He is best known for his influential and provocative blog, Grounded Design. In addition to writing, Thomas has designed landscapes for the U.S. Capitol grounds, The New York Botanical Garden, and over 100 gardens from Maine to Florida. Thomas is an Associate Principal for the firm Rhodeside & Harwell, teaches planting design for George Washington University, and has recently co-authored the book, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes for Timber Press, which will be available at the conference.

Janisse Ray is the author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, the story of growing up on a junkyard in Baxley, GA, amid the vanishing longleaf pine forests of the south. The book was named A Book All Georgians Should Read and a New York Times Notable Book. In addition, Janisse has written The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food and four other books. She is a 2015 inductee into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

Ken Wills is involved in various local conservation projects including sandstone glade restoration and prairie establishment at Moss Rock Preserve and Limestone Park. He is President of the Friends of Moss Rock Preserve and Volunteer Coordinator of the Birmingham Audubon Limestone Park Project. Ken has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology and a Master of Science Degree in Physical Geography.