Native Plants

The Triangle’s Natural Gardens

Eighty years ago B.W. Wells wrote The Natural Gardens of North Carolina to introduce the state’s citizens to the natural wonders he was studying and documenting as botany department chair at N.C. State College. Rather than just creating an encyclopedic listing of the state’s wildflowers and their characteristics, Wells organized his book by describing the major “natural gardens” or plant communities occurring in the state. Still in print, the book’s lively descriptions and straightforward style make it as readable today as it was in 1932.

Wells wrote the book in response to requests from garden club members for information about the state’s wildflowers, and to further his goal of promoting the beauty of North Carolina. He advocated using native plants in gardens to achieve what he described as a “recent trend in landscape practice, which is definitely toward the nature-imitation ideal.”

When Margaret Reid began rescuing plants from the path of development and planting them in her Raleigh garden in the 1930’s, she was very much influenced by Wells, who was her husband’s colleague. Visitors to the Reid Garden today can see that Reid arranged her garden “ecologically” using the same associations of plants found in nature. The garden, which has a conservation easement with the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC), has an annual open day and can be visited by appointment throughout the year.

B.W. Wells, his wife, and the Reids spent pleasant afternoons picnicking and studying unique plant communities in Wake County, including the area that is now Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary. Triangle residents can explore “natural gardens” by visiting any of the five nature preserves protected by the TLC and open to the public. Directions to the preserves, trail maps, and lists with photos of the preserves’ plant and animal inhabitants are available at the organization’s website.

Catawaba Rhododendron by Doug Nicholas

Three of these preserves—Swift Creek Bluffs, White Pines and Flower Hill—showcase several distinct plant communities, some that were common in the Triangle before development and others you might expect to travel to the mountains to see.

Just two miles south of Hemlock Bluffs is Swift Creek Bluffs. The site was virtually unknown before 1981 when a botany student walking his dog noticed plants not normally found in the Piedmont. The north facing slopes harbor these mountain natives, while the floodplain is crowded with plants once common in the Triangle such as Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum).

A bit west of Cary, in Chatham County at the confluence of the Deep and Rocky Rivers, the White Pines Nature Preserve transports visitors to the high mountains where Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and Mountain Witch Alder (Fothergilla major) thrive. This plant community remains from the Ice Age when glaciers forced northern species south. The north-facing river bluffs enabled these mountain species to survive as temperatures warmed.

To the southeast, in Johnston County, Flower Hill sits on the dividing line between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. The preserve features another shrub we normally associate with higher elevations, Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) along with Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens). Wells explored and publicized this convergence of plant communities in 1937 when, according to the TLC website, Flower Hill was seen by more than 12,000 visitors over the course of three weekends in May.

Two of Wells’ arguments for bringing natives into gardens—their beauty and diversity—are valid today. The third reason, minimum expense due to the plants ready availability, may have been reasonable when only 10 million of the state’s 31.2 millions acres were under cultivation, but not in our era of rapidly disappearing open space. According to our state’s Department of Natural Resources, North Carolina leads the United States in lost farm and forest lands with 383 acres per day converted to roads, shopping malls, and housing.

North Carolina’s Plant Conservation Program (PCP), a part of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, is charged with protecting our most rare and imperiled plant species. Katherine Schlosser who serves on the PCP Board laments losing the beauty and wonder of our unique plant communities.

“Ginseng used to grow as far east as the Raleigh area, but no more.” The loss of these plants hurts all of us, from those who simply enjoy the diversity of plants in North Carolina to those who depend on them for an income,” Schlosser says.

Conservationists agree on the importance of leaving native plant populations in the wild. The North Carolina Native Plant Society and the North Carolina Botanical Garden are among organizations that list sources for nursery-propagated native plants. Anyone interested in saving plants from development, should visit the NCNPS website to learn about organized rescue efforts. Gardeners can also help preserve the beauty and wonder of our natural heritage by asking vendors if their native plants are nursery propagated.

Visit these websites for more information on North Carolina native plants.

Triangle Land Conservancy

North Carolina Plant Conservation Program

North Carolina Native Plant Society

North Carolina Botanical Garden

Dale Batchelor is the founder of Gardener by Nature LLC, a company offering garden consultation, design, management services, and gardening classes. Her display garden, co-created with her husband, John L. Thomas, is a certified National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat and a native plant habitat recognized by the North Carolina Native Plant Society.

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