Plant for a Better World

Through the N.C. State University arboretum that bears
his name, J.C. Raulston created a gardening vision that has
changed the landscape across our state.

By Charles Heatherly / Photos courtesy of JC Raulston Arboretum

It is a place to enjoy beautiful blooms, delightful fragrances, and a variety of garden designs—features offered by most arboreta. Despite the uncommon beauty that surrounds you wherever you go in this 10 acres of flora splendor, it is also a place for quiet solitude where you can leave troubles of a frenetic world behind.

I have a unique appreciation of the JC Raulston Arboretum because I’m the beekeeper. The 6,000 different plants are a bonanza for honey bees. It is, in my opinion, the best bee yard in the world. Unlike the rest of the world, where the typical honey flow exists for only a few weeks, something is in bloom every day of the year, even during the heart of winter.

Cercis Canadensis (Eastern Redbud)

Cercis Canadensis (Eastern Redbud)

What sets this arboretum apart, however, is the role it has played in changing North Carolina’s horticultural landscape during the past four decades.

“The JC Raulston Arboretum’s policy of sharing plants and propagation material to nurserymen and green industry professionals has had a profound impact upon commercial and residential landscapes throughout North Carolina and much of the Southeastern United States,” says Mark Weathington, director of the Arboretum. This was the goal of founder J.C. Raulston: to diversify the American landscape.

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“Fantasy,” the giant Japanese crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei), stands 50 feet tall near the Beryl Road entrance to the JC Raulston Arboretum. Planted from a seed in the mid 1950s, Fantasy is believed to be the tallest crepe myrtle of its type in the U.S. Fletcher Powell, 5, and sister, Linde, 6, can’t reach even halfway around the huge trunk.  Photo by Charles Heatherly

“Fantasy,” the giant Japanese crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei), stands 50 feet tall near the Beryl Road entrance to the JC Raulston Arboretum. Planted from a seed in the mid 1950s, Fantasy is believed to be the tallest crepe myrtle of its type in the U.S. Fletcher Powell, 5, and sister, Linde, 6, can’t reach even halfway around the huge trunk.

Photo by Charles Heatherly

Plants from more than 50 countries adorn this diverse flora and test their potential for adapting to local and regional landscapes.

While others guard their plants like the gold at Fort Knox, Raulston invited growers to come to the arboretum and make propagation cuttings of the woody plants that might flourish in their markets around the state.

Since its modest beginning, the JC Raulston Arboretum has distributed millions of plants among the state’s nursery industry. The results of that generosity are evident in neighborhood landscapes all across North Carolina and throughout the Southeast.

Among the many plants introduced by Raulston and now common throughout the region are Leyland cypress, arborvitae, ‘Emerald Pagoda’ snowbell trees, ‘Chindo’ viburnum, and others.

“J.C. Raulston is widely credited with introducing more plants into culture than any other person in the world,” wrote Tom Monaco, then head of the N.C. State University Horticulture Department. At the time, he was making an endorsement for renaming the arboretum for Raulston, following Raulston’s untimely death in a 1996 automobile accident.

Annual sales of the North Carolina horticultural industry were just $75 million in the mid 1970s when Raulston began the policy of sharing plants. Now the sales exceed $1 billion a year.

More than a dozen themed gardens, each a unique display of floral excellence, exhibit a diverse landscape of horticulture seen nowhere else in the eastern United States and not many places on the planet.

So you prefer white blooms? The White Garden presents a favorite place for weddings.

Tulipa ’Tinka’

Tulipa ’Tinka’

Are you considering creating a garden with sandy and arid conditions? You might want to spend time in the Xeric Garden (the name xeric indicating desert-like conditions).

If you have a preference for oriental plants, you might linger in the Asian Valley or the Japanese Garden, with its hundreds of showy specimen. Other gardens include Winter, Scree, Southall, Rooftop, and the Magnolia Collection.

Each of the gardens offers a unique perspective of how plants survive and flourish in different parts of the world and in extreme climates, elevations, and other diverse growing conditions.

The compactness of this arboretum is also an advantage. Where else can you stroll across such a diverse display in a half hour and enjoy such a wide variety of the planet’s most magnificent flora? Here, for example, you may explore the world’s most extensive collection of redbuds—one of which is named for the late Kay Yow, N.C. State’s legendary women’s basketball coach. You’ll also find nandinas and various ground covers, and the only collection of dwarf loblolly pines found on planet Earth.

The arboretum’s 450-foot perennial border, which hosts native wildflowers, common perennials, and rare exotics, was once described by noted British landscape architect and author Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe as “an epic border, a heroic event in landscape architecture.”

Leucojum Aestivum (Summer snowflake)

Leucojum Aestivum (Summer snowflake)

Master Gardner Anne Clapp, co-host of the popular Weekend Gardner program on WPTF and long-time arboretum volunteer, is profuse in her praise of J.C. Raulston. “I had the pleasure of meeting J.C. Raulston at a party for new faculty in 1976,” she says. “His enthusiasm for students and plants was contagious, and did not diminish during the 20 years he was at N.C. State. In those early days, his favorite plant to promote was the Prunus mume, the flowering apricot. The one he gave me flourishes in our front yard, but I still remember hearing nurserymen at the trade shows saying, ‘Here comes Raulston with another [pausing for implied expletive] Prunus mume.’”

She goes on to explain that the research from his trips around the world was “shared with plant geeks everywhere, and the palate of plants available in North Carolina nurseries expanded greatly with his efforts.

While I enjoy and appreciate the plant collection we have inherited from him, I appreciate the students he mentored even more. Some are running nurseries of their own and others lead botanical gardens throughout the world. As J.C. said, plan and plant for a better world.”

Some 50,000 visitors come to the arboretum each year. Some schedule their weddings here. Some bring their cameras, hoping to find a beautiful scene to capture. Others attend workshops and meetings in the education building. Most, however, come to enjoy the flowers and fragrances of plants gathered from disparate places around the world.

The arboretum, open from sunup to sunset every day of the year, is on Beryl Road (about a half mile east of Dorton Arena). Admission is free of charge.