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Highlands Botanical Garden

Trail to the Highlands Botanical Garden

Even though we both have a tendency to get queasy, an hour’s worth of winding roads didn’t deter my friend Lisa Tompkins and me from taking the recent opportunity to visit the Botanical Garden at Highlands Research Station in Highlands, North Carolina. We were due at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference by evening, but that gave us time to see the gardens, stroll through the town, and eat lunch, too—so we did!

Parking is at the Nature Center on Horse Cove Road. Signs direct you to the garden from the front drive.

Turk's-cap Lily (Lilium superbum) at the Highlands Botanical Garden

Just through the arbor and around the bend is a stunning display of Turk’s cap lilies (Lilium superbum). These are rare in the piedmont, but here in the mountains at around 4000 feet altitude, they are a common sight. With that bold color and great height, they’re quite dramatic, aren’t they?

Entrance to the Highlands Botanical Garden

Typical of Appalachia, stonework and twig (or log) fences are at home with all the native plants.

Goldie's Wood Fern (Dryopteris goldiana)

Goldie’s wood fern (Dryopteris goldiana) provides an airy welcome at the entrance to the garden.

Dutchman's-pipe (Isotrema macrophyllum) and Beebalm (Monarda didyma)

The large, heart-shaped leaves of Dutchman’s pipe vine (Isotrema macrophyllum) drape the fence, and just beyond, bee balm (Monarda didyma) catches the eye of humans and hummingbirds alike.

Beebalm, Unopened Flowers (Monarda didyma)

Bee balm’s red buds seem to have bled onto the bracts beneath them.

Beebalm, Colorful Subtending Bracts

A brook is a wonderfully dynamic feature, and provides soothing sound.

Stream Through the Rhodos at Highlands Botanical Garden

A few feet from the brook, beech ferns (Phegopteris sp.) and galax (Galax urceolata) mingle. The difference in texture and shades of green make these two an attractive pairing.

Ferns and Galax

Botanical gardens are great places to get good ideas for your home garden, and I made special note of this vignette. I wonder if they make a stable combination, or does one eventually crowd out the other?

Beech Fern

We have been in the Woodland Zone of the garden contemplating hemlocks, oaks, sweetshrub, hydrangea, ferns, and which spirea we’re seeing.

Turk's-cap Lily (Lilium superbum) at the Edge of a Pond

But now we get our first glimpse of the Wetland/Lake Zone through a small opening at the edge of the woods.

Waterlily Pond in the Highlands Botanical Garden

Native waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata) nearly fill this finger of Lake Lindenwood.

An Appalachian Bog, Highlands Botanical Garden

Further along, a southern Appalachian bog appears. St. John’s worts, sedges and grasses glow gold in the afternoon light.

Yellow Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava var. ornata)

Pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava var. ornata) thrive in the soggy conditions.

Pregnant Sarracenia

Their aging flower petals fade and crumble away to reveal a fattening capsule.

Catching Seeds (Sarracenia flava var. ornata)

White tulle catches the seeds as they ripen. Highlands is a research facility after all, and sometimes that involves intercepting seeds in the name of science.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

A buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) looks as happy here as it does in the coastal plain. So do the pitcher plants. How is this possible? Plant nativity and distribution patterns are interesting—and sometimes perplexing.

Touch-me-not, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

Along the damp edge of the path, a small orange flower dangles from the jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). It quivers with every vibration, bringing to mind a guppy in a fish tank.

American Chestnut leaves (Castanea dentata)

Now a short venture back into the woodland and there’s Castanea dentata — an American chestnut! But but but … didn’t they all die?

Why yes, they did. But the fungus that killed them (Cryphonectria parasitica), doesn’t kill the roots of the trees, so even 80 years after most of them died, the stumps still send up sprouts.

Unfortunately the fungus eventually kills the sprouts, too. I hope to write more about the chestnut story sometime; it’s very sad but with a ray of hope at the end.

In the meantime, let’s find the trail that goes through the Old Growth Forest Zone.

Snowy Hydrangea or Silverleaf (Hydrangea radiata)

Snowy hydrangea (Hydrangea radiata). Lisa tells me I neeeed this for my garden. She’s on a mission to popularize this delicate-looking plant in home gardens and landscapes. I think she may have a winner — if only we could get nurseries to propagate it so we can buy it!

Coker Rhododendron Trail, Highlands Botanical Garden

We find the trail, and just a few steps in we’re surrounded by huge rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maxima), dog hobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana), mountain pepper bush (Clethra acuminata), witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), and there must be an oak tree very close by, too. Look at this acorn —

Acorn on Rhododendron Leaf

It looks precariously perched there, doesn’t it? If I bump it as I walk past, it will skitter off its rhododendron pad into the duff.

Acorn Piercing Rhododendron Leaf

But no. Those pointy parts on the blossom end of the acorn have some piercing power! It wasn’t budging from that leaf, even with a shake. I ponder how often this happens in the forest, and what might be the long term effects of that delayed contact with the ground.

Moss and Rhododendrons, Highlands, NC

But then we see this incredible expanse of moss-covered rock. Moisture creates such a scene; rainfall can top 100 inches in a single year in Macon County.

Mossy Cliff Face, Highlands

Is that Lisa botanizing in a skirt? No, she’s just prepared — that’s her rain jacket tied around her waist.

Mossy Twig with Backlit Sporophytes

But now it’s getting late, and time to join the rest of the native plant enthusiasts in Cullowhee. We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in this garden. The biodiversity, the range of habitat, a sense of primeval — all compelling. We’ll be back.

Highlands Biological Research Station

With regard to the “winding roads” part at the beginning of this post, I have a recommendation. Ginger Delights are spicy little pastilles that I only recently discovered, which do a great job curbing nausea, from either motion or digestive issues. They come in small tins, which for some reason are irresistible. I keep one in my purse all the time now. I hope you like them too, and find them helpful (for long rides to botanical gardens, natch).

Big Sky Ginger Delights — In Charlotte, Fresh Market sells these in the check out lines.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Perfection! I love how you worked the acorn in. Such a good storyteller, you are! Makes me wish I were back there right now.

    1. Aw thanks, Lisa! I wish we were back there, too. I had almost forgotten what moisture can do. Maybe we’ll get some more around here eventually.

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