NC Botanical Garden’s beauty perseveres through all seasons

By Wilkins Swiger

 The chilling piano bars of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” played over auditorium speakers. A handful of people sitting around fold-out tables furrowed their brows at the development. In front of them were foil packages of miniature cookies scattered around glass pitchers of water. The last song was a ‘90s boy band hit. The one before that was an old country love ballad.

Janna Starr, facilities and events manager at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, watched everyone from behind her laptop, concealing her knowledge of the playlist behind an amused smile.

“They all have ‘heart’ in the title,” Starr said. “We thought about just playing a heartbeat pulse, but that might stress people out.”

Eating some of the cookies and drinking some of the water, the donors at the table were content. They were recuperating after giving blood at the Botanical Garden’s February Bloodroot Blood Drive, named after the ephemeral bloodroot that blooms this time of year. Donors were eligible to view a patch of them in the garden on a tour after donating.

The winter garden

On the day of the tour, the temperature outside was 52 degrees.

The first review of the Botanical Garden, posted three days ago, reads, “While winter isn’t the best time to view the NC Botanical Garden, it’s still a lovely place to visit any time of the year.” 

Director of Conservation Programs Johnny Randall and his team work hard for assessments like those.

“Winter is one of my favorite times in the garden,” Randall said, sitting around the cookie table, looking up through the skylights of the auditorium. “You get to see the bones of the garden. You get to see the architecture of trees.”

Randall has a doctorate in botany. After a stint as a professor at UNC Greensboro, he has spent the last 22 years at the Botanical Garden. 

He enjoys the winter at the garden for several reasons.

“If you ask the horticulture staff, they might say, ‘because you don’t have to be out weeding and tending the garden so much,’” Randall said.

After a smile, Randall said that there was still plenty to do in the winter to prepare for “the growing season.”

Becca Wait, landscape curator for the Botanical Garden’s entryway, agreed. Standing in the courtyard of the garden, she pointed out a cardinal that had just landed a few yards away.

“Winter is a great time for birdwatching,” Wait said. “The absence of leaves allows greater visibility when birds perch up in the trees.”

Pointing to outcroppings of dead, barren stems from smaller plants, Wait said the garden leaves those as bird perches as well.

The entry courtyard managed by Wait is the first plant space at the Botanical Garden, just beside the classrooms and the Reeves Auditorium where the blood drive was being held. Specific plant species are showcased, surrounded by wooden benches and chairs to invite guests.

Although there are benches throughout, the rest of the garden is radically different. It is a series of habitats, all from North Carolina, curated to be as natural as possible for the species native to them. In the middle of Chapel Hill, the garden keeps a patch of mountain habitat and a patch of North Carolina’s coastal plain habitat. There are habitats for North Carolinian carnivorous plants and poisonous plants as well.

“These are the plants that have been here since before Europe came in, [before] exotics and invasives,” Jennifer Peterson, associate director of communications at the garden, said.

Apologizing for the pun, she added that the garden is a place to “get back to our roots.”

At the head of one of the paths was one bloodroot flower, alone, even though they usually grow in a patch. Wait suspected that an ant had planted the seed there.

“They help out a lot around here,” Wait said.

The work to build a garden

Descending into the crossing paths of the garden, it appears kempt, but not tidy. It is more of a beautiful forest than an estate garden – there are no grass lawns or neat rows of bushes. Instead, the Botanical Garden aesthetics serve realism and sustainability. However, it still takes just as much effort.

“They put a lot of work into making sure these habitat gardens actually mimic those natural environments as much as possible,” Wait said. 

She pointed out the mountain section of the Garden where soil was imported from western North Carolina. The Botanical Garden acquired it as it was being scraped away from the earth for highway demolition projects.

A few minutes later, Wait stood over a patch of bloodroot. Only about 6 inches from the ground, each stem boasted a white flower just larger than a quarter. They will stay in that patch, drinking in the sunlight that comes through the leafless trees. By the spring, when the trees leaf out and shade the garden’s floor, the bloodroot plants will have already seeded and withered, ready to retreat back into the ground until next winter.

On the way out of the forest, smoke was floating through the bare trees like a thin fog. It started to smell like fire. It was the first sign of the controlled burn happening in the grassland’s habitat in a separate part of the Botanical Garden. This time of year was best for it, Wait said. The grasslands need the heat, or some of the seeds won’t open and propagate in the spring.

Through the woods it looked like an enormous mid-day bonfire. Peering in from behind the orange cones that marked the burn site, silhouettes of scientists and students stood staring into a perfectly square patch of fire.

The forest fire safety instructions instilled in the rest of the world would sound off internal alarm bells at the sight – the floor of the entire rest of the garden could hardly be seen through a layer of bone-dry debris – but the figures around the flames were stationary, watching. Year round, it is their job to keep the garden vibrant.

Edited by Suzanne Blake and Jess Bennett