Charlie Keith and his wife have helped more than 5,000 trees take root in Orange County since the 1970s, but finding someone to nurture that legacy has been the biggest challenge.
The nonprofit Keith Arboretum – one of the largest woody plant collections east of the Mississippi River – also may be the county’s best-kept secret. It’s a private arboretum covering about 22 acres of a more than 80-acre parcel at 2131 Marion’s Ford Road, about seven miles northwest of Chapel Hill.
Keith, an 82-year-old former child psychiatrist and Duke University associate professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, has had the property on the market for nearly a year. Carrboro’s Weaver Street Realty is handling the sale of the arboretum and a 2,216-square-foot, three-bedroom house, priced at $599,000.
Keith now lives closer to Chapel Hill but visits the arboretum daily, maintaining it with the help of a part-time caretaker. He’s had some inquiries, but no one willing to continue the arboretum or work around the restrictive conservation easements.
About 45 acres are protected under an easement with the Triangle Land Conservancy, and the county has claim on roughly 22 more acres. In May, Keith sold the remaining 22 acres under conservation to Pamela Bayne, executive director of the Triangle Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic.
The easements prohibit development, timber harvesting and other commercial activities, but a new owner could remove or replace the buildings. New construction must fit the same footprint and continue the arboretum’s conservation and research goals.
“We hoped to raise an endowment for our foundation, but then the recession” hit, Keith said. “We got started too late, so now we’re left with only one other choice, to find a person who loves the plants and species and can take this over.”
Keith and his wife Barbara bought the property off rural Dairyland Road in 1963 and raised three children there. Barbara Keith died in 2002.
Over the years, the couple restored the farmhouse, known as the King-Garrett homesite. They kept the pine floors and beadboard ceilings installed in 1890, when the house was built around the original 1830s log cabin, and added a second well.
The English-style cottage garden – one of the first things Barbara Keith planted – still surrounds the house, framing a rock-lined goldfish pond.
By the 1980s, Charlie Keith was adding trees and shrubs from around the world, attracting scores of horticulture students, researchers and professionals. While the collection focuses on woody temperate species, Keith also has beds dedicated to a few hundred dwarf conifers.
He drew inspiration, he said, from William C. Coker, who established the Coker Arboretum at UNC-Chapel Hill, and J.C. Raulston, founder of the JC Raulston Arboretum at N.C. State University.
“I really feel like I have something here,” Keith said. “The last 20 years, I’ve really dug in and brought species from around the world.”
If the trees could talk, they would have many stories to tell.
There’s the magnolia that he planted on Oct. 15, 1967, for his daughter’s ninth birthday. It was a sapling when he bought it from the Roses Dime Store that used to be on Franklin Street, he said.
And the giant sequoia near the house – while rare in North Carolina – is descended from the sequoia that Coker planted in 1910 on South Columbia Street near the current Chapel Hill Fire Station, he said.
Orange County is a favorable home to diverse species, said Keith, who “scrapes by” with a $50,000 annual maintenance budget.
“Part of my fun is bringing in things that have never been grown (here) before, and growing them,” he said.
Mark Weathington, assistant director and curator of collections at the JC Raulston Arboretum, said a $2 million endowment is the minimum needed to generate income for maintaining the land and house. Weathington also is a member of the arboretum’s advisory board of directors.
The Raulston Arboretum would be more interested in taking over if it had the money, Weathington said. The Keith Arboretum is also too far away to be practical. They’ve talked with UNC’s N.C. Botanical Garden and Duke University’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens, he said, but their focus is more local.
The board would love to help the right person keep it going, Weathington said. An entrance fee or donations could help pay for it, he said, but the biggest challenge would be advertising, since the arboretum isn’t well-known among the general public.
“If somebody were to take it over and keep it intact, they would really have to have that passion that Charlie has for it,” he said.
Keith is still optimistic there’s someone out there who could share his vision. He calls each tree and shrub by name, gently touching their branches as he wanders along a timeworn path. He grows quiet when asked what could happen if no one takes over.
“The consolation is at least I had a lovely 40 to 45 years here,” he said. “People can come in and enjoy it.”