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Embracing spring in 4 North Carolina botanical gardens

Follow me while I embrace spring in North Carolina with visits to four public gardens: the North Carolina Botanical Garden, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, the JC Raulston Arboretum, and the New Hanover County Arboretum.

Embarking on a journey through the heart of North Carolina in early April 2024 was a delightful venture, sparked by an invitation for my husband to speak at the Triangle Bonsai Society. As an avid admirer of nature, and with winter stubbornly lingering in Southern Quebec, this excursion promised a captivating exploration of the region’s horticultural and botanical treasures with the colors of Japanese maples, wisterias and azaleas. And then, I harbored the hope of catching a glimpse of tree peonies in full bloom…

The well-curated garden of hosts Susan and Steven Zeisel
in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

The North Carolina Botanical Garden: A celebration of native beauty

My first visit was to the North Carolina Botanical Garden, a haven for conservation and native plant species, affiliated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

With a profound appreciation for botanical gardens, I was particularly drawn to their mission of conservation and educational outreach, championing an understanding and reverence for indigenous ecosystems.

Under the gracious guidance of Heather Summer, collections manager, I gained insight into the garden’s mission and future aspirations. The garden’s steadfast commitment to safeguarding North Carolina’s botanical legacy, evident in their diverse collection of indigenous species and carnivorous plants, served as a testament to the significance of such institutions.

Venturing forth into the garden’s expanse, I discovered a reassembled cabin tucked in the woods, the writing retreat of Paul Green (1894-1981) who was one of the South’s most revered writers.The cabin had been previously owned by the Robert Davis family, African American craftspeople who made caskets, furniture, and baskets.

I was particularly excited to see the native counterpart of the crested iris (Iris cristata), a smaller iris I started growing recently in my own garden. I also reveled in the garden’s diverse oramental offerings, finding respite beneath the graceful canopy of white Lady Banks roses (Rosa banksiae ‘Alba’), while witnessing the joyous pursuit of Easter eggs by young visitors and their doting grandparents.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens: A tapestry of horticultural elegance

Continuing my journey in Durham, North Carolina, I found myself immersed in the captivating atmosphere of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, on the grounds of Duke University, where the beauty of spring unfolded in all its magnificence. Renowned for its thoughtful design and botanical exhibitions, the gardens offered a serene refuge amidst nature’s artistry.

The Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, with its crimson bridge stretching over a serene pond, emanated a serene Japanese-inspired ambiance.

And guess what? I couldn’t resist admiring the few but beautiful tree peonies in bloom…

Of special mention were the Terrace Gardens, where each level revealed a plethora of seasonal treasures. During my visit, vibrant tulips swayed alongside Dutch irises and alliums, creating a stunning depiction of spring’s abundance. This spectacle is not to be missed, evident from the multitude of visitors strolling about, captivated by the springtime showcase.

The Blomquist Garden of Native Plants stands as a tribute to the incredible variety of Carolinian flora, showcasing the resilience and beauty of native species. Wandering through these lush landscapes, amid the hum of busy bees and blossoming flowers, instilled a deep sense of respect for the rhythms of life and rejuvenation—themes synonymous with the timeless allure of spring.

The JC Raulston Arboretum: Cultivating local landscapes

Nestled in Raleigh, North Carolina, the JC Raulston Arboretum stands as a testament to the rich tapestry of landscape plants carefully cultivated for the southeastern United States. With a meticulous focus on the unique conditions of Piedmont North Carolina, the arboretum serves as a hub for the collection and evaluation of plant species, aiming to identify superior varieties tailored specifically for southern landscapes.

During my leisurely exploration, I was immediately drawn to the serene beauty of the small Japanese Garden, where rare botanical specimens from Asia mingled amidst intricately crafted wooden and stone features, creating a tranquil oasis.

While my visit may not have aligned perfectly with certain perennial displays—only a few peonies and a generous border of lenten roses were in bloom—there were azaleas and magnolias in bloom. Japanese maples were also showing their spectacular spring foliage.

The Terrace Garden provided an abundance of inspiration for urban and container gardeners alike. Here, a diverse array of water-thrifty and heat-resistant plants thrived, some even flourishing in as little as six inches of growing medium. Notable highlights included captivating features such as the crevice garden and a charming alpine rock garden, showcasing the arboretum’s commitment to innovation and horticultural excellence.

The New Hanover County Arboretum: A city garden

Concluding my botanical adventure, I found myself drawn to the coastal city of Wilmington, where longtime friends Elaine and Hank eagerly awaited our arrival for a three-day stay. Nestled within this vibrant community lies the New Hanover County Arboretum, formerly known as the University of North Carolina at Wilmington Arboretum, intimately linked with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. This marked my second visit to this verdant haven, reminiscent of my exploration during the vibrant camellia blooming period back in late February of 2020.

Beyond its role as a picturesque garden retreat, the arboretum serves as a focal point for educational initiatives, including the esteemed Master Gardeners program, recently completed by my friend Elaine. On the day of our visit, the many volunteers were getting ready for a major plant sale.

Enveloped in the arboretum’s embrace are a myriad of small specialty gardens, each offering its own unique charm and allure. The strip long Japanese Garden, adorned with a tranquil tea house and meandering stream, beckons with its serene ambiance,

The whimsical Children’s Garden captures hearts with its miniature cottage. The arboretum also includes a Rose Garden, a carnivorous plant exhibit and demonstration area featuring recommended lawn grasses tailored for southern resilience. Echoing the arboretum’s commitment to presenting local flora, the Native Plant Garden serves as a vibrant tapestry of North Carolina’s indigenous botanical treasures, further enriching our coastal sojourn.

Reflecting on the importance of botanical gardens

My recent visit to these gardens transcended mere sightseeing; it became a voyage of professional enrichment and personal fulfillment. As a retired botanist and librarian, I have long advocated for the pivotal role botanical gardens play in education, conservation, and research. Exploring these gardens amidst the vibrant tapestry of spring underscored the profound impact of these institutions, even though they are smaller compared to others I have visited throughout my career. They serve as steadfast guardians of plant diversity, offering sanctuary for local or endangered species and provide knowledge and beauty for all who traverse their paths.

Amidst the bustling crowds of local visitors, I was reminded of the paramount importance of fostering a deep connection with nature from a young age, nurturing a lifelong journey of environmental stewardship and discovery, whether through an introduction to local flora or the sheer joy of witnessing floral displays.

For those with a passion for plants, conservation, or simply the breathtaking beauty of plants and cultivated landcapes, these four gardens stand as jewels nestled in the heart of North Carolina, extending a warm invitation to all, especially during the enchanting season of spring. And perhaps the most wonderful aspect is that they are all freely accessible—a generous gift to all who seek a few hours of reconnecting with nature’s wonders.

For more information about these gardens, visit their websites:

North Carolina Botanical Garden

Sarah P. Duke Gardens

JC Raulston Arboretum

New Hanover County Arboretum

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