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A horticultural road trip - Appalachia to North Carolina

Last year in May I did to an epic trip through the Appalachian Mountains to North Carolina. I haven’t properly documented this anywhere yet, so I thought I would take the opportunity to do so.

A view of the Blue Ridge Mountains
The Blue Ridge Mountains part of the Appalachian Range

My main impetus for going there was to see Plant Delights nursery and a horticultural friend of mine Ben Pick - who had recently bought a house and some land near Asheville and wanted to make something of it; possibly a combination of a garden and nursery with some agricultural activities. These were the seeds of reasons for going and then more and more good reasons converged - Will Hembree a former Interchange Fellow the American equivalent of me (who goes to the UK to work in different gardens for 9 months), was down there doing an interesting graduate programme in plant breeding, a scenic drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a good time of year for wildflowers - Virginia and North Carolina is the heart of the US Piedmont flora that I have strongly admired at the native plant garden Mt Cuba Center near Longwood, including seeing specimen Rhododendron flowering in the mountain and the promise of good food - an itinerary easily came together.

My first stop was to see a lady and PG alumni (Longwood’s Professional Gardener’s Programme) Deb Wiles who I had first met at Great Dixter in Little Washington, Virginia. She was running the garden of the Michelin starred restaurant The Inn at Little Washington owned by chef Patrick O’ Connell. Little Washington is a small village of 125 people, and consists of beautiful old houses and buildings from the 1700s. I felt it was important to see what horticulturists who go through a similar training path as me do afterwards. The restaurant is lavishly and theatrically decorated by London set designer Joyce Conwy Evans. Deb worked hard to keep the garden spick and span to complement the Inn which is a very popular wedding destination and the garden itself receives recognition. Having spent some time in England, the way her house was furnished reminded me of the UK and it was great to get a proper cup of tea. The village was also conveniently placed at the foothills of the Shenandoah National Park for getting onto the Blue Ridge Parkway the road I wanted to go on through the Appalachian Mountains. After picking up some last supplies at Charlottesville I embarked into the mountains.

One of the garden rooms at The Inn at Little Washington
One of the garden rooms at The Inn at Little Washington

The Blue Ridge Parkway is the perfect road - it goes right into the midst of the mountain ranges, a continuously winding road that you can go no more than 40mph (you wouldn’t want to), no huge commercial vehicles are allowed on it, and there are tons of viewpoints to stop at (especially if you have a car bearing down behind you, though the road is hardly busy). It was over 400 miles of this that I drove. Tumbled down wooden barns, historic sites, old meadows and pastures, signs of agricultural activity gave a sense of the history and culture that exists there. The ancestry of the Irish, English and Scottish settlers, mountain folks who liked to keep to themselves a bit more, and if you really looked the small remnants and signs of the Native American people who existed before them. This was the first of this kind of journey I have ever made on my own before, so it was significant for me in this respect. The first time I had driven so far, the first time I had picnicked and camped out in places where there are a risk of bears.

The Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway

Appalachian Fencing
One of the interesting Appalachian fencing techniques

There was a special spot that I stopped at that I was not able to capture to full effect by camera. It was the view of an old valley, and I was standing on top of a rock that people down in the valley used to use to tell the time of the day. They would look towards this rock and if they saw that the sun had hit it, then they knew it would soon be sunset. It was precisely at this point that coincidentally I stood looking out at the valley. At a distance the mountains have a blue hue caused by the trees releasing isoprene into the atmosphere.

A special view in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A special view in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

These are some of the plants I sighted from my roadside botanising:

Parasitic plant Conopholis americana Squawroot on oak roots
Parasitic plant Conopholis americana Squawroot found on oak roots

A mass of Salvia lyrata on the roadside
The native Salvia lyrata regarded more as a weed here because it self sows prolifically.

Bright orange Rhododendron calendulaceum
The beautiful bright orange Rhododendron calendulaceum casually graced the road, as we got to the South of Virginia and into North Carolina.

Red flowered Silene virginica
My car nearly screeched to a halt when I saw a flash of searing from Silene virginica

Kalmia latifolia - most of them were still in bud but there were masses of them clung to rocks that must look like clouds when they are in flower.

I was recommended a walk around Crabtree Falls - the largest waterfalls East of the Mississippi and there I sighted Trillium (mainly T. grandiflora), an assortment of Viola, Medeola virginiana Indian Cucumber...

Lousewort Pedicularis canadensis
 Lousewort Pedicularis canadensis

Small purple Iris cristata
Iris cristata

Uvularia perfoliata

Maianthemum canadense
Maianthemum canadense

I also spotted a small tiny insignificant version of Gillenia trifoliata (one of my favourite garden plants) on the edge of a woodland from a casual wake up stretch early one morning.

It was cooler in the mountains but the weather was warm and stable. My journey through the mountains was cut a little shorter than expected because snow had occurred just outside of Asheville, North Carolina, and they had to close a section of the road there. I stopped off at the Blue Ridge Music Center where there was some live old-time music being played and descended down the mountain where thankfully my friend Ben was hosting me in Asheville.

We went to visit an 120 acres private garden called Southern Highlands Reserve. The garden was set high up in the mountains at an elevation of 4500ft, the Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbel and Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks kindly took time out of their busy schedule to show us around the estate.

Vaseyi Pond with breathtaking vista of mountain behind it
Vaseyi Pond

The design of the garden is unique in that the owners the Balentines were forward thinking and open minded enough to take advice from people like Richard E. Bir, who was a Extension Horticultural Specialist at North Carolina State University and had retired. He was particularly knowledgeable about native woody plants, and they hired several other professionals to survey the site such as Dan Patillo and botanist Ron Lance. This inventory and analysis process was instrumental in guiding the design process of landscape architect W. Gary Smith. One of the natural inspirations of the garden is a stand of Rhododendron vaseyi the largest one known in the world that already existed there.

They recognised the importance of preserving this rare high elevation ecology of the South Appalachian Forests, and in order to protect the land from future residential and commercial development, they have signed the land into the American Land Trust to save it in perpetuity. So as well as a private home and garden the place is an active conservation site - a native plant arboretum and research centre.

Pink Trillium catesbaei
Trillium catesbaei one of the plant highlights at Southern Highland Reserve, a native specific to that area.

The appearance of the lodge and garden was very sleek, stylish and sophisticated, a lot of amazing natural materials were used like wood and stone. The rocks here have an extraordinary presence, and they proudly made use of local craftsmanship. Everything I had seen along the Appalachian trail I saw there and more. Areas of the garden included the Chestnut Lodge Roof Garden, which technically was like a mini woodland on top of of a roof - the soil depth there being 8 -12 inches deep with a special drainage system installed. The levels are cleverly designed in such a way that it helped blend it into the rest of the landscape and not feel like a roof garden or a construction at height. There was a rock face full of niche plants that specialists have to abseil to botanise, a circular wildflower labyrinth, woodlands and glades, a grove of twisted long bare legs of Kalmia latifolia with a dense colony of Galax urceolata underneath - a shiny leaved ground cover with simple white flower spikes that is often used in floristry, and the climax of the Vaseyi pond, an impressive pond area, with the breathtaking view of the mountains behind it as the backdrop.

Kalmia and Galax grove
Kalmia and Galax grove

Close up of Galax urceolata's glossy round serrated leaves
Close up of Galax urceolata

One of the projects they are involved in with is working with the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI) to grow on thousands of red spruce Picea rubens to be planted on public land - an important tree of that region, to help reforest depleted areas. They also hold a Native Plants Symposium in May. This place is the perfect example how a space can feel still so close to its environment, but equally set it off so well, that you notice and have a deeper appreciation of the nature around you, and how gardening is capable of doing this.

Will Hembree, ex-Interchange Fellow, happened to be doing a stint with Tom Ranney, a respected professor of Horticultural Science at NC State University, who runs the research programme that looks at the development of new nursery and bioenergy plants for all sorts of purposes - better more suitable plants for the landscaping trade, economic crops, plants that could be more commercially viable, pest resistant etc. His work is carried out in the Mountain Crop Improvement (MCI) Lab. He is a very influential professor and many great horticulturists in the States can be traced back to him, there is a strong contingency of past Tom Ranney students in significant horticultural roles in Chicago. So I felt very privileged when we went to the lab to see Will that he offered to show us around.

One of the greenhouses at the MCI Lab
One of the greenhouses at the MCI Lab.

The type of breeding work for instance that was going was the breeding of hardier evergreen and even deciduous Magnolia that were red flowered by crossing Magnolia figo with species like M. stellata. Crossing Cornus florida and C. kousa for unique interesting but also more pest resistant varieties, elements of trialling and selecting Callicarpa for better foliage, Illicium for redder foliage and for a good ornamental Musa - straight habit and leaves that don’t tatter - M. balbisiana has these traits so it is possibly a good parent for this.

Magnolia figo breeding

What to breed for is not based on arbitrary decisions, it comes from skill, experience, insight, and a foresight to understand what people are attracted to, what is desired but keeping the integrity of making good quality plants too. He has a good sensibility and a discerning eye, and seemed to look towards nature for inspiration and understanding as well as interesting accidents - many interesting cultivars and varieties have started from a freak situation of nature spotted by a keen eye - all the elements that make up a good plantsman.

Illicium seedlings
Breeding for Illicium for red foliage

The work that good plants people like Tom can be deeply significant, bringing quality and diversity to the industry, plants that gardeners like to garden with and the opposite of breeding for garden centres for plants to be convenient for shopping trolleys, and can have huge implications on the cultural, social and economical situation of a trade. It is interesting that this role seems to be strongly fulfilled by universities in the US, and is usually a part of their ‘Extension’ services - where there is often a sector for advice to the public on horticultural matters.

Ben Pick and me in front of one of the MCI Lab outdoor trial and research beds.

The lab was conveniently near the beer company Sierra Nevada’s Mills River Estate Garden that Will introduced us to. With it’s Taproom offering many of its beers on tap, a pilot brewery and restaurant offering farm to table food from its vegetable garden on site - it was a smooth operation that cleverly marketed and demonstrated itself, drawing one into its brand in an ‘all encompassing and experiential way’.

Me and Will Hembree in front of the vegetable garden at Sierra Nevada’s Mills River Estate Garden.

After Asheville I drove to Raleigh, here it was instantly hotter and more humid. Ben had done an internship at JC Raulston arboretum there and had put me in touch with Horticultural Technician Tim Alderton who runs the programme and who gave me a tour around the garden with gusto. Highly knowledgeable he showed me the many rare and unusual plants there, asking me questions of whether I was a lumper or a splitter taxonomically wise.

This 10 acre arboretum ran by North Carolina State University is filled with 6000 taxa - considered one of the most diverse woody collections in the US and is open to the public all year round for free. Dr James Chester Raulston is an influential person around these parts, he was a lecturer at NC State University in the Horticultural Science department and was director of this arboretum before he unexpectedly died in a car accident in 1996. Students contributed to the creation of the arboretum including the design and planting of it. In the spirit of Raulston the arboretum’s mission is ‘to introduce, display, and promote plants that diversify the American landscape’ and ‘benefiting communities economically, environmentally and aesthetically’. This seemed to have trickled outside and beyond the arboretum, temporary highway planting from Asheville to Raleigh were some of the most interesting and cheerful that I have seen including the use of Delphinium and Daylilies. Raleigh has more than the usual street trees, known as the city of oaks with a long list of oaks used, including and not limited to Quercus phellos, Q. virginiana, Q. glauca, Q. palustris, Q. shmardii and Q. falcata.

I first came across Tony Avent and his nursery Plant Delights when I was writing a dissertation on this topic and found his book ‘So you want to start a nursery’ - a no nonsense slightly scary but much needed practical guide to running a nursery business. He himself was taught by J C Raulston. Typically the front covers of his plant catalogues features a cartoon, on the 2017 one, it is a skit of star trek called Plant Trek highlighting their mission - ‘to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new plant life to share with gardeners…to boldly grow what no one has grown before.’ Turning up to the nursery sure enough was like entering a whole other world. I was wondering why there were so many cars for a nursery that was mail order only and as far as I knew did not have an open day that day, and then I realised it belonged all to their staff. Having started out from selling hostas from the boot of his car, the nursery is now at least a 25 staff full flung affair (40 in summer), feeding 12% of its profits in creating a botanic garden on site! I have never witnessed a nursery have an operation that ran like a sizeable public garden. It had its own IPM department as well as Research and Trials.

Plant Delights Research and Trial beds
Plant Delights Research and Trial beds that also double up as stock beds.

There are so many different elements going on that it is hard for me to summarise it all. Keith Lukowski Gardens Supervisor and Programs Coordinator who Will had hooked me up with, graciously took me around the site. The mail order room was a frightfully smooth, orderly and efficient set-up. There are demonstration beds, borders, garden areas, stock houses and beds, research areas, an education centre and facilities to accommodate visitors on open days, as well as extra land for future expansion. Tony and his wife Anita live on site also.

A demonstration bed at Plant Delights showing how Sarracenia can be grown
One of the demonstration beds at Plant Delights showing how Sarracenia can be grown and other plants that can be used to complement it.

One of the clever things that Tony has done is identify his niche clientele, which as well as supplying botanic gardens (JC Raulston Arboretum has many of his plants) is expensive plants for fine gardening and private collectors around the world who have a taste for rare plants. So their reach is global as well as national. They were even growing and selling Amorphophallus titanum - the monocarpic titan arum that has the largest unbranched flower in the world and takes about 7-10 years to flower and which botanic gardens worldwide proudly grow and display.

They have a very active breeding programme and work with Walter Gardens - the largest commercial perennial grower in the US to create, produce and sell these plants. Some of their creations have been Mangave, a cross between Agave and Manfreda. A Mangave is evergreen, is less spiny and rarely offsets, coming in all shapes and patterns. Other genera examples that they do breeding work on are Crinum and Baptisia. There are variations and species of plants that I didn't even know existed or could have even imagined possible.

One of the many different types of Mangave

Baptisia arachnifera with unusual felty silvery leaves
Baptisia arachnifera with unusual felty silvery leaves.

The succulent-like red flowered Penstemon murayanus
The succulent-like Penstemon murayanus

The research and trial beds are stocks beds also. There are 7 acres of just those in total. The botanic garden part called Juniper Level is 10 acres and has over 22,000 taxa. Tony has a very wry sense of humours and all through the gardens and in his catalogues are dotted with his jokes. It is not just exotic rarities that do either but they are also purveyors of native plants.

One of Tony Avent's mock sculptures.

On the way back I went via the East via the Outer Banks, it was a bit of dash journey back but these were some of the scenes that I experienced:

Charred trees from wild fires near Hyde County, North Carolina
Charred trees from wild fires near Hyde County, North Carolina.

Swamp Cypress Taxodium distichum in Lake Muttamuskeet
Swamp Cypress Taxodium distichum in Lake Muttamuskeet.

An abandoned house in Hyde County.
An abandoned house in Hyde County.

Gaillardia growing as a weed on the coast
Gaillardia growing as a weed on the coast near the Outer Banks.

It was such a fly-by trip and of course I would like more time to absorb and to see more, but it was great to have even experienced a slice of what this part of the world has to offer, to tick off a couple of pilgrimages made and go home with a few more stories to tell.

As always I am grateful for people's time and generosity for showing me around, hosting me, support and advice. For this particular trip I would like to thank Deb Wiles, Ben Pick and Will Hembree for being amazing hosts. Betsy McCoy for telling me about Southern Highlands Reserve and Glenn C. Eyck for recommendations of points of interest along the way. My friends Mark Mosinki and Susan Quinn equipping me with everything that I needed for the journey tent, music ‘n’ all.


  1. Absolutely lovely recap of your journey. I went along a similar raod-trip with my husband and daughter about 3 years ago and I remember the feeling of driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Everything about those humid forests (we went during September), the dramatic landscapes, the glimpses of barely standing barns and wooden fences. We actually walked through North Carolina State University but I hadn't done my research and didn't know about it's Horticultural Science department (now I do!) and I was impressed by it's lush landscapes and massive elephant ear plants and ferns. I think that you did a great summation of your trip. It's hard to acutely insert the feelings and emotions that stem from such an experience - very nice post. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Lili, sorry I only notice your message now. Thanks for your comments. It is hard to really capture a journey but I tried to portray some essence of it. I'm glad it resonates. If you're interested in horticulture related things, it is definitely one of the richest areas for this.

  2. p.s. you have inspired me to revisit this journey! This time with garden/nursery stops along the way ;)


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