Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Winter Visit to the JC Raulston Arboretum

In mid January I visited the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, North Carolina, while my husband went to the North Carolina Museum or Art down the road.  I've been to the JCRA before, but this was my first winter-time visit and the structure of the plants stood out on this, unfortunately, cloudy day--the shape of evergreens, the architecture of deciduous trees, the jagged edges of Agaves. Part of NC State University, the arboretum was named for the beloved plantsman,  JC Raulston, NCSU professor and founder of the arboretum, after his sudden death in a car accident in 1996 at the age of 56.

These Loblolly Pines (Pinus taeda), seen below, are spectacular looming over the lath house with their big rounded heads and whisk-broom texture.  They are actually a slow-growing, dwarf form (the straight species can top out at 100 feet) introduced by JC.  
Loblolly Pines (Pinue taeda 'NCSU Dwarf Group') 

According to Bobby J. Ward's excellent biography, Chlorophyll in His Veins: JC Raulston Horticultural Ambassador, in 1987 JC deemed this pine "one of the most beautiful and useful potential landscape plants in existence for southern gardens."   But propagating this pine involves an unusual type of graft onto the straight species, not your everyday technique, which has meant dwarf P. taeda did not proliferate in the trade and, from what I can tell, is not easy to find today. ( I did notice, however, that Yucca Do Nursery in Texas will have some back in stock in the fall, assuming the grafts are successful).

JC Raulston's vast slide collection --more than 84 thousand images, mostly taken by him--is now available for everyone's viewing pleasure via the arboretum's website. (Just click on the "photography" link.) I discovered 126 images of P. taeda, including several of these very trees being planted with a huge tree spade.

Searching JC's slide collection also confirmed for me that the lanky pines we saw the day before, towering over the lake at the Sarah P. Duke Garden in Durham, are the straight species of Loblolly, as I suspected. Quite a contrast in habit.

Views of the straight species of Loblolly (I believe) at Sarah P. Duke Gardens
I assume these were not planted (i.e., they existed on the site when the garden was created).  They are an effective foil along this large linear lake's edge due to their massive scale.  They provide a wonderful cathedral ceiling in this spot.

Near the JCRA Visitor's Center is a scree garden of plants loving  good drainage, including spiky Agaves, Dasylirions, Yuccas and Palms like the ones below.  The Raleigh-area had experienced single-digit temperatures prior to my visit, but no snow.  The raised berm-like beds help these dramatic beauties shed the winter-wet (more rain than snow in this case) which can spell their death.  Mulching with Perma-Till (crushed shale) or other small gravel helps keep their feet dry.

That might be Muhly Grass 'White Cloud' doing a low bow next to the steely blue agave.

Despite the rather gloomy weather there was color in the garden.  The neon yellow bark of Styphnolobium japonicum 'Winter Gold'  was not to be missed, especially set against an evergreen hedge.  It is the gold-stemmed Japanese Pagoda Tree, formerly known as Sophora japonica. Japanese Pagoda seems to be increasingly used as a street tree, though not this striking yellow-barked form.
Glowing stems of Styphnolobium japonicum 'Winter Gold', gold-stemmed Japanese Pagoda Tree
Crape myrtle is, of course, a ubiquitous southeastern tree.  This mature specimen has an especially muscular and beautifully bronzed  trunk (no gym membership required ), which you don't see often except in public gardens.  I'm not sure which Lagerstroemia this is, but it's likely fauriei and perhaps the selection 'Fantasy,' a JCRA introduction that can reach 50 feet.    
Trunk of a Crape Myrtle in the Japanese garden, probably Lagerstroemia fauriei "Fantasy'
A deep pink, almost red, form of Prunus mume, Japanese Flowering Apricot, provided rare flower color and that fabulous spicy fragrance for which it is known and grown.  After perusing the JCRA website, I'm going to guess this is 'Matsubara Red', said to be an early bloomer (they typically bloom in late February in the D.C-area, so I would imagine a few weeks earlier in Raleigh, making this a distinctly early one since it was bloooming on January 16th)  and semi-double.  It might be the photo, but my recollection is that the flower is quite dark compared to the more common pink forms.
I suspect this is Prunus mume 'Matsubara Red'
These last few images I'm including for the plant's form.  Tilia cordata 'Dwarf Weeper' has a graceful silhouette, though I wouldn't call it weeping (would you?), and attractive cinnamon-colored stems.  I see that it was planted at JCRA in March 2010.  I wonder if it's a newer introduction as searching online I can find only one nursery that carries it, or carries it under this name.  At about 10 feet tall, it's a picturesque small tree and I love its winter character. I may have to seek it out for my own garden.
Dwarf Weeping Little Leaf Linden

As mentioned earlier, winter wet conditions can cause death to Agaves and their relatives, yet they are showing up in many public and private gardens outside of their native southwest I suspect because they add a kind of primeval drama as only they and their siblings, such as Yuccas, Nolinas and Dasylirion, can.   I'll be interested to discover how the many large and small Agavaceae at JCRA come through what has been an extra cold and wet winter.  Here's a beautiful  specimen; I hope it looks as happy now as it did when I last saw it! (It's probably 3 to 4 feet across.)
I'm pretty sure this is an Agave parryi, hardy to zone 7
 At only 10 acres, the JCRA is a small arboretum.  Yet what it lacks in size it makes up for with a rich and dynamic display of  woody and herbaceous plants.  It would not be what it is today without the force that was JC Raulston behind it to get if off the ground.  Reading Bobby J. Ward's absorbing biography of JC will shed more light on the origins of this place,  the complicated man that was JC, and the history of many of the landscape plants we now take for granted but which JC brought to our gardens.  I highly recommend it AND a visit to the JCRA.