Local Gardens

The Keith Arboretum: Preserving a Legacy of Plant Diversity

Keith Arboretum

One of the largest collections of woody species east of the Mississippi River happens to be one of the hidden botanical gems of the Triangle. The Keith Collection (formerly the Charles R. Keith Arboretum) is a botanical garden with nearly 4,000 labeled species of trees and shrubs from temperate regions of the world.

History of the Keith Collection

Dr. Charles Keith, a professor of child psychology at Duke University, began in the 1970s by adding a few interesting trees and shrubs to his wife’s perennial gardens at the family’s early 19th-century farm seven miles northwest of Chapel Hill. For the next 40 years, this passionate plantsman grew the collection to 19.5 acres with 40 acres of wooded buffer land.

By 1990, garden clubs and botanical groups began visiting the collection, known for its incredible plant diversity and informal style. The grounds are a showcase of the species that can be grown in central North Carolina, with habitat conditions ranging from boggy to dry, and plant hardiness zones from 2 to 9. Sourced from a wide range of nurseries, collecting trips, and through his affiliation with NC State’s J.C. Raulston and other noted botanical experts, Dr. Keith amassed a stunning assortment of 23 species of firs, 76 species of pine, 24 species of birch, 103 species of maple, and a stunning 112 species of oak.

The Keith Collection Today

In 2015, following Dr. Keith’s long search for someone to protect his botanical legacy, Unique Places LLC, a conservation real estate firm, purchased the collection with a goal of finding a long-term steward to continue Dr. Keith’s legacy. Top priorities included capturing Dr. Keith’s unique story with video interviews, and working with NC State Forestry students to locate and describe each tree and shrub with GPS points for a searchable database. In late 2018, Chapel Hill-based nonprofit Unique Places To Save purchased a 50 percent controlling interest in the collection and hired Becca Wait as its first director of horticulture (not counting Dr. Keith).

The property is part of the Honeysuckle Farm and Gardens, which includes the adjoining 143 acres of Pickards Mountain Forest and the nearby Honeysuckle Tea House and Farm. The collection is managed for botanical education and enjoyment with tours and events. A virtual reality tree experience is in development to use technology as a doorway for engaging children in discovering trees on treasure hunts throughout the collection.

To learn more about free monthly tours and events, visit the website.