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Raleigh’s JC Raulston Arboretum celebrates 40 years, and looks to the future

This photograph of J.C. Raulston was taken in South Korea in 1985 on the South Korean plant expedition. Raulston, the person, changed the nursery industry, and the humbly sized arboretum bearing his name has made an outsized impact as well.
This photograph of J.C. Raulston was taken in South Korea in 1985 on the South Korean plant expedition. Raulston, the person, changed the nursery industry, and the humbly sized arboretum bearing his name has made an outsized impact as well. JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University

A lot of plants go into the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, but they don’t all come out.

The hebe shrubs, natives of New Zealand, don’t do well – only a handful, including an enormous tapawera, survived. Fuchsias have a low tolerance for heat, cold or both, though an Angel Earrings cascading fuchsia has made it four years, arboretum director Mark Weathington pointed out during a recent tour. He stopped at an oak leaf hydrangea with a sizable flower head, an apparent success. It’s disease resistant, he said, and has been suggested to nurseries in Johnston County.

The arboretum is more than just a place to contemplate strange and wonderful plants or to learn new garden skills. It is a testing ground. If plants can make it here, Weathington said, they can survive in yards and gardens. And if they can’t? “We kill a lot of plants here,” he said.

This follows the mission of the its namesake, the late J.C. Raulston himself. When this place started as the N.C. State University Arboretum in 1976, Raulston was driven to diversify the American landscape.

Wherever he went, Weathington said, Raulston saw that 40 plants made up most of the plantings. So he traveled extensively, bringing plants to North Carolina. If they proved they could survive, he gave the plants to nurseries. It changed the industry, Weathington said. Today, even a big box store has a spectacular variety of flora, so the arboretum under Weathington evaluates new strains to see if they’ll actually grow. If test subjects die in an arboretum plot, it means suburban gardeners will be spared a similar result.

The late Raulston was a beloved N.C. State professor, a horticultural innovator and a proponent of gay acceptance and inclusion. As the arboretum bearing his name turns 40 this year, it grows and evolves in his spirit. To understand the JC Raulston Arboretum’s future, one must understand its founder.

“That little garden is just nimble and quick,” said Richard Olsen, director of the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington. At 10.5 acres, the JC Raulston Arboretum is tiny in comparison to the National Arboretum’s 446 acres, yet it has a substantial reputation nationally and internationally, Olsen said.

Personally, Olsen wouldn’t be where he is today if not for Raulston or the Raleigh arboretum that bears his name. As an undergraduate in the mid-’90s, the Raleigh-raised Olsen ended up with Raulston as his adviser. With advisees assigned by where their names fell in the alphabet, it was sheer luck of the draw. It changed his life.

“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” Olsen said.

He took classes under Raulston and worked for him at the arboretum the summer of 1996, which happened to be a rare year that Raulston did not travel the world seeking new plants. Raulston had overextended his budget, so he made a grand, sweeping vow – he was famous for his intense swings, Olsen noted – that he would not leave North Carolina for a year. Olsen had his nursery management course, but also met significant horticulturalists in an intimate setting through Raulston: When famous people visited, Raulston would invite graduate students to his house to meet with them. Olsen and a friend were the only two undergrads invited. After interacting with these luminaries and realizing that Raulston traveled the world doing science and collecting plants, Olsen knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

By the time Raulston died in a car crash, just before Christmas 1996, Olsen had made his decision.

For years he kept the course cancellation notices of the three spring 1997 classes under Raulston he never got to take. He brought them to Raleigh with him in March, when he gave the keynote address at the opening of the D.H. Hill Library’s J.C. Raulston exhibit, “Plan – and Plant for a Better World.”

“There are so many personal artifacts in the Raulston exhibit,” said Chris Vitiello, N.C. State libraries communications strategist. His favorite objects are an unremarkable-looking vase containing dried wheat and a bottle of crude oil. The Oklahoma-born Raulston, son of a Shell Oil worker, kept these as reminders of where he came from, and they were on his desk his entire professional life.

“It’s unexpectedly poetic,” Vitiello said.

In the exhibit are childhood drawings and travel journals, but also a display that mentions Raulston’s 1985 founding of the Lavandula Society, a support network for gay and lesbian horticulturalists. Raulston was gay and worked to create what we would today call “safe spaces.” He held the first meetings in his home, and the society grew.

“You think about the old boy attitude of agriculture. This is the world he’s thrust into,” Olsen said. Raulston took it upon himself to create a place of belonging for gays and lesbians in the world of horticulture. He was unselfish, Olsen said, a great teacher and mentor. And made an enormous impact.

“He transformed the nursery industry in the U.S.,” Weathington said. “There is a before J.C. and an after J.C.” Nowadays, and mostly due to his efforts, nurseries sell a variety of bold and exciting plants, so the arboretum that bears his name has moved away from introducing new plants. With that mission an overall success, its research has moved into analyzing what’s out there. Along the northern edge of the arboretum, for example, the research is as obvious as the beds and beds of color trials. Beyond them, Weathington said, are experimental rain gardens.

Yet the arboretum is also a public garden, and its future involves as much horticultural research as it does being as inviting and educational as possible to the public. From the road, for instance, the arboretum can be easy to miss. Its pedestrian entryway is a chain-link gate, and its sign is little different from those outside N.C. State campus buildings.

Weathington doesn’t have a date for its construction yet, but he excitedly describes plans for a new entryway.

The 19-foot stainless steel gate was designed by Greensboro’s Jim Gallucci, the sculptor behind downtown Raleigh’s oak leaves and acorn pillars. Adult education is moving away from lectures and into hands-on, multi-week workshops with recently retired N.C. State faculty and raising money for an edible landscaping garden. Children’s programs have grown by 140 percent annually, up from four summer camps last year to six, Weathington said. A new yurt, also intended for the children’s programs, is going in just past the color trial beds; nearby, a group of early elementary school kids sprinted across the gathering lawn.

“If we’re going to have children in the garden, we want them to be in the garden,” Weathington said.

Sometimes, even the director of the National Arboretum feels like a child again. When he’s around accomplished horticultural scientists, he remembers how he felt when Raulston first introduced him to the world for plants. Olsen wishes he could talk with Raulston, that he could ask his mentor how he ever got in his current position at the National Arboretum, he says with a laugh.

Twenty years after Raulston’s death, though, Olsen is still approached by people who want to talk about what the late horticulturalist meant to them. All they have to see is that Olsen went to State for horticulture in the 1990s, and they excitedly approach him: Raulston, the person, changed the nursery industry, and the humbly sized arboretum bearing his name has made an outsized impact as well.

“There is not a plant person around the world – not just professionals, but hard-core enthusiasts – that hasn’t heard of the JC Raulston,” Olsen said.

Reach Hill at corbiehill@gmail.com

More information

Raleigh’s JC Raulston Arboretum is celebrating 40 years with several upcoming events:

Fun in the Sun Picnic

When: 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. June 25

Where: J.C. Raulston Arboretum

Price: $5 in advance for nonmembers, $7 day of. Free for member families.

Details: A family-oriented picnic in the garden with cake, ice cream and outdoor games. Bring a picnic and a blanket from home and find a spot on the grass. Go to https://jcra.ncsu.edu/events/details.php?ID=1241.

J.C. Raulston exhibit tour with Bobby J. Ward

When: 3-4 p.m. June 26

Where: Exhibit gallery at the D.H. Hill Library, N.C. State University, Raleigh

Price: Free (see below)

Details: The tour with garden writer and Raulston biographer Bobby J. Ward is free, but space is limited. Register at https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/event/j-c-raulston-exhibit-tour-bobby-j-ward-0. The Raulston exhibit at D.H. Hill remains on display through Jan. 8, 2017.

40th Anniversary Symposium: ‘Horticultural Bright Lights: The Future of Gardening’

When: Sept. 23-24

Where: J.C. Raulston Arboretum

Details: This upcoming symposium features two days of talks by prominent horticulturalists. The focus here is the next 40 years. For more information, go to: jcra.ncsu.edu/symposium. Cost: $130-$180.

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