Allen de Hart can’t hike far on the trails next to his Louisburg home without spotting something that delights him. Walk the paths behind him, and he’ll turn now and then to point out a patch of mullein – “the roots can be boiled into cough syrup, you know” – or hand you a crushed mint leaf – “put that in your car, you’ll smell it the whole way home.”
The difference between de Hart and any avid naturalist is that those trails by his house are part of the De Hart Botanical Garden, 91 acres purchased and preserved by their namesake since the 1950s.
De Hart cemented that legacy last month, deeding the land to Louisburg College, the institution where he taught psychology and American history for 52 years.
“Because I can’t take it with me” is his explanation for why he did it – that and the impulse of a lifelong teacher and nature lover to pass that gift on to future generations.
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College President Mark LaBranche calls it one of the most historic gifts the 225-year-old college has ever received, “a gift of God’s creation, fashioned through the hands and mind and heart of Allen de Hart.”
“It gives you a feeling of serenity and gratitude for creation,” LaBranche said. “I think that comes from reflecting on God’s creation, as well as all the ways Allen has been a co-creator with God in making sure the place is beautiful.”
Located off Highway 401 near Louisburg, the gardens have always been open to those who honor its rules: no smoking, no firearms and no littering. Keep to the trails, and make sure to sign in on the notebook in the gazebo.
Those willing to explore its twisting trails will stumble upon everything from waterfalls to bamboo groves to the foundations of an old plantation home. It’s a place where every plant you pass is lovingly labeled, and patches of daisies are precious enough to flag for protection against lawnmowers.
Love at first sight
If you have a chance at a tour led by de Hart, though, grab it. After more than half a century tending those 91 acres, he can tell you the best time to hear the bullfrogs sing or explain how to find the field where hundreds of tiny lime-green and yellow crane-fly orchids bloom in July.
At 85, de Hart is a soft-spoken retired history professor with a white beard and gentle demeanor, who wears hiking shoes with his creased pants and button-down shirt. He’s written multiple popular trail-hiking guidebooks, including the comprehensive “North Carolina Hiking Trails,” and founded the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
De Hart’s love of nature was honed growing up on a dairy farm in the Smith River Valley at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, where he spent long days exploring the woods with his two brothers. Cities seemed rushed and artificial.
“Anybody who loves the land initially can never get it out of their system,” de Hart said.
He tried. One look at the inner workings of an elevator on a visit to Winston-Salem as a kid got de Hart fired up about becoming an engineer. He traveled the Middle East serving the U.S. Army in the 1950s, then decided on a career in education.
De Hart and his wife, Flora, moved to Louisburg from Virginia in 1957 and bought a patch of land outside town. As they cleared away the kudzu, honeysuckle and grapevines, the couple found Paleozoic granite rock formations with rare wildflowers peeking from their crevices.
It was love at first sight.
Building the garden
They began buying up the surrounding land for as little as $500 an acre. In 1961, the couple set up a nonprofit organization and officially turned the land into the botanical garden it’s been ever since. Over the years, they added overlooks and benches and bridges, some stone steps into the lake to be used for baptisms, plus miles of trail, some of it manicured, some left wild and pristine. Now, that land is worth as much as $25,000 an acre, de Hart said.
De Hart’s modest brick house is just across the azalea line from the gardens. He visits the park just about every day. He can tell you the best places to watch the sun set and the moon rise, and show you where to find rare species of wildflowers.
Nick Birtha, a retired naturopathic doctor, stopped to visit the gardens on a whim last week. The modest brown sign caught his eye, unexpected in the middle of rolling Franklin County farm country.
“It’s quite a novel idea,” Birtha said. “There should be more of them like this, all over the place.”
Along with the land, de Hart is also passing over an endowment that will cover the cost of a caretaker and maintenance after his death. The house is to be used for the college’s botany instructor, who will also serve as a caretaker for the gardens. Until then, de Hart will continue to oversee the upkeep.
And if you’re lucky, you might be able to spot him on the trails and get a tour of your own.