Public gardens of the Triangle offer plant diversity, conservation ideas, more | Home & Garden

Between working in public horticulture and keeping up with my home garden, spring doesn’t afford much time for travel or trips to other gardens. My downtime usually comes in the heat of the summer or during the winter months, which isn’t always ideal for leisurely strolls.

However, I had a fortunate opportunity recently to attend a conference in Chapel Hill, hosted by the American Public Gardens Association, where we toured several North Carolina public gardens. My giddy excitement is still lingering, as I’ve finally been witness to spring’s glory in these iconic spaces.

The Triangle area of North Carolina is ripe with public gardens, offering some of the most tranquil settings, an abundance of cutting edge plant species and endless inspiration for gardeners of all levels. During my stay in The Triangle, I visited N.C. Botanical Garden at UNC-Chapel Hill, JC Raulston Arboretum at N.C. State University, Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University and N.C. Museum of Art Museum Park in Raleigh.

The N.C. Botanical Garden is a treat for anyone looking for a little outdoor time while traveling through the Triangle area. I first visited a few years ago with my husband, when we discovered the Piedmont Nature Trails — the trails were a perfect respite when we needed a few hours to stretch our legs before a lengthy graduation ceremony. These trails are adjacent to the display gardens and offer several miles of woodland paths in the heart of Chapel Hill.

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Of course, the display gardens at the N.C. Botanical Garden are a treat, too, and are a true testament of sustainability. Deemed a conservation garden, the display gardens and facilities are focused on the use and propagation of native plants, seed banking and using sustainable practices in everything they do and teach. Perhaps my favorite aspect of their mission statement is “gardening in nature’s context,” a focus on plants that best contribute to the biodiversity of the Piedmont.

The display gardens feature a multitude of N.C. habitats and populations, representing the range of our state’s ecological regions. From the mountains to the coast, these gardens also highlight niche environments, such as bog gardens, drought-tolerant oak gardens and a display of poisonous plants.

Just as fascinating as the gardens that surround it, the LEED Platinum certified education center is a marvel of sustainable engineering. From the water conservation efforts to the passive-solar design, the building was built around the rich land on which it sits — absorbing mature trees and the native habitat into its design.

Raulston Arboretum never disappoints, as it’s a treat for the average gardener, but a carnival for true plant nerds. After a couple of hours strolling through the many gardens within the arboretum, I gained so much inspiration for my own garden, especially with spring pollinator plants.

Amy Dixon

A fragrant shrubby michelia blooms at J.C. Raulston Arboretum at N.C. State University.

The redbud collection at Raulston is extensive, which all seemed to be in full bloom the day of my visit. I was blown away with how many bees, wasps and pollinators were covering these blooms — many of which seemed to vibrate and buzz as I walked past. The Magnolia laevifolia (michelia) were a delight for the bees, too, which I was able to smell before I even saw it.

I also love how Raulston Arboretum is such a great teaching tool — both for students and for gardeners and plant enthusiasts. So many of the plants in the gardens are test subjects, new cultivars meant to be observed, trialed and recorded. So if you round a corner and see a dead plant, it’s simply a learning curve. In some instances, these plants may become design elements in the garden, even in their death.

Adjacent to the gathering lawn, a weeping mimosa had obviously come to the end of its life, but its gnarled, twisted branches provided the most whimsical touch to the backdrop of the blue sky. It was clear its life still had a purpose in this garden.

Amy Dixon

This weeping mimosa at J.C. Raulston Arboretum at N.C. State University has come to the end of its life, but its gnarled, twisted branches provide a whimsical touch to the backdrop of the blue sky.

Just a short jaunt from Raulston, I found an unexpected treat in the public park that surrounds the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh. The park’s mission is to connect “art, nature and people to encourage creative experiences and human interactions.” Coupled with permanent and temporary art installations throughout the park, this is a playground for all nature lovers.

Amy Dixon

A botanical mural by Louise Jones at N.C. Museum of Art connects art with nature.

A large botanical mural was the first thing to draw my eye when I arrived at NCMA, which covered a swath of the museum’s east gallery. Artist Louise Jones was commissioned for the 2018 site-specific installation “Summer’s Where You’ll Find Me,” which gracefully ties the summer blooms of the park with the artwork that lies within. The blooms depicted in the mural include Cephalanthus occidentalis, Asclepias incarnata, Hypericum frondosum, Silphium perfoliatum and many more.

The last garden on my whirlwind visit to The Triangle, was Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University. It was my first visit to Duke Gardens, but most certainly not my last. Had the setting sun not run me off, I think I could have stayed for days.

Amy Dixon

Dogwood blossoms and yellow bamboo compliment each other nicely at the Japanese Gardens at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham.

Before our arrival, a docent gave us a brief history of the garden’s design and topography, pointing out how the garden is now an exemplary model of storm water management. How convenient that we arrived only moments after a spring thunderstorm dropped a hard rain on Durham. The creeks and streams were full, and everything was lush after the storm.

The dogwoods, conifers and the colors of the Japanese garden were so vibrant the day of my visit. These types of gardens fascinate me, as I don’t have a good eye for the design principles involved. But what an inspiration it is to see it all come together on such a grand scale.

I’ve promised myself a weekend excursion back to the Triangle soon, so I can plunge once again into the layered charm of these gardens and more. I encourage everyone to get out and visit the many public garden spaces in our area. Whether it’s the demonstration gardens at your local extension office or an ever-evolving historic estate, a wealth of botanical beauty exists all across the state of North Carolina.

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Amy Dixon

Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at or [email protected], with “gardening” in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101.