By Donna Cornelius
Dr. John Alex Floyd Jr. has cultivated some pretty impressive gardening credentials over the years.
Floyd was Southern Living’s editor in chief for 18 years, is a trustee for the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens and was a member of the American Horticultural Society’s board of directors. After earning a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture at Auburn University, he went on to Clemson University for a master’s degree and a doctorate in plant physiology.
Floyd also has been one of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ most enthusiastic and loyal supporters. He was the Gardens’ Volunteer of the Year in 2010 and recently was named director emeritus by the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
But what doesn’t show up on his resume is perhaps the thing that fueled all these notable accomplishments: the pure joy he finds in gardening.
Every week, he’s part of a group of volunteers who gather to work in the BBG’s Japanese Garden. He and his friends enjoy the hands-on labor that helps keep this well-known spot beautiful. In pre-COVID days, they often had lunch together after their tasks were complete.
“I like to prune and pull weeds,” Floyd said.
Floyd will be honored at Birmingham Blooms, an Oct. 4 sunset picnic that’s being held to show appreciation for the Gardens’ individual and corporate supporters.
“It’s going to be a cool thing,” he said about the event. “October is one of the most beautiful months at the Gardens, with the Japanese maples in the Japanese Garden and the sensational fall roses. There will be wonderful food, a chance to stroll through the Gardens, to be outside.”
This constant gardener’s association with the Birmingham Botanical Gardens started more than 40 years ago.
“When I finished at Clemson and came to Birmingham, people knew I had been involved in the South Carolina Botanical Garden at Clemson, so it was a natural transition to the Gardens here,” he said.
Like any garden, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens have changed over the years – and Floyd has loved watching them flourish since the early days of his involvement.
“Then, it was basically a big greenhouse and some collections,” he said. “There was the Dunn Formal Rose Garden, the Conservatory and the Kaul Wildflower Garden.”
He said the Japanese Garden also was in place but has undergone a transformation since.
“Several of us, including the director at that time, developed a master plan, and Frances Blount led the campaign to execute it,” Floyd said.
Blount, a staunch supporter of the Gardens, was the honoree at the 2011 Antiques at the Gardens event.
Floyd’s career with Southern Progress started in 1977 when he became senior horticulturist for Southern Living. He soon had leadership roles with several Southern Progress magazines. He was editor of Southern Living Classics, an upscale Southern Living spinoff that was later merged with Southern Accents, which the company purchased in the 1980s; editorial director of Southern Accents; and editorial director of both Creative Ideas for Living and Cooking Light.
In 1988, he moved into advertising as creative services director for Southern Living, Southern Accents, and Travel South.
When Southern Living Editor Gary McCalla retired in 1990, Floyd was tapped to replace him and then two years later became vice president of the magazine. Floyd extended the Southern Living brand with creative newsstand publications targeting special reader interests. Today, Southern Living produces about 14 of these titles each year, from “Home for the Holidays” and “All-Time Favorite Recipes” to “Ultimate Before & After” and “Our Best Gardens.”
Floyd has been a key member of several teams charged with developing Southern Progress’ Lakeshore Drive campus. Visitors come from all over the South to tour the home of Southern Living and see the lovely grounds surrounding Southern Progress headquarters.
‘A multicultural attraction’
Floyd has high praise for Tom Underwood, the Friends organization’s executive director, and said he hopes that events like Birmingham Blooms will lead to more hometown support for the Gardens.
“The appreciation locally isn’t as great as it should be,” he said. “People may not realize how well the Gardens are known nationwide.”
He pointed out a big plus for the facility: visiting the BBG is free.
“I recently read about another botanical garden that was raising its admission price to $25, and there’s no charge for ours,” he said. “It’s a multicultural attraction.”
Floyd said about half of the Gardens’ revenue comes from the City of Birmingham, and the Friends group raises most of the other half.
“The Friends are vital,” he said. “We have about 2,500 members and need to have twice that many.”
Other benefits for visitors are 24-hour security, ample (and free) parking, and the creatively-stocked gift shop. Floyd said the Gardens’ educational programs always are well attended, although COVID-19 restrictions have had an impact on these classes and seminars.
“There’s something for everybody at the Gardens,” he said.
Floyd said he was honored when the Friends group named him director emeritus earlier this year.
“It was a big surprise,” he said. “I’m a trustee, I’ve been board president. This is more of a ceremonial or adviser role when the director needs me. I have a mental history of what’s gone on at the Gardens over the years.”
The resolution conferring the title, which honors individuals who have rendered extraordinary service to support the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the Friends organization, passed unanimously at the board’s April 21 meeting.
“Looking at the contributions John has made — and continues to make — there is no question that he is extremely worthy of this honor,” Board Chairman John Smith T said. “John’s dedication to the success of the Gardens is well-known and far-reaching. It includes his service as president from 1982 to 1983, as a dedicated board member and trustee, as an unwavering proponent of the Gardens, as a hardworking and committed volunteer, and most recently as a valued consultant to the Friends’ efforts to update and execute a renewed master plan for the Gardens.
“We remain grateful to him for his incredible commitment and contributions to this special place and all it makes possible.”
Floyd, a native of Selma, has lived in Trussville for many years. There, he’s been a member of the Trussville Tree Commission and the Trussville City Board of Education, and he’s been an active member of Huffman United Methodist Church for many years. He and his wife, Pam, have two adult sons, Ryan and Alex; three grandchildren; and two dogs.
Retirement has been a fruitful time for Floyd. He writes a blog called Birmingham Gardening Today and also works diligently to complete chores on what he laughingly calls his “Pam Dearest List.”
“My own garden at home is in transition right now, but it will soon be time to sow lettuce, broccoli, kale and cabbage,” Floyd said. “We like to plant things we can eat.”
He’s hoping to see lots of familiar faces as well as those of new friends at Birmingham Blooms.
“It will be a fun time for me,” he said. “And it’s a way you can support the Gardens.”