Summer blooms in Asheville’s gardens
Outdoors is the place to be in Western North Carolina in any season, but particularly during the summer months when nature calls us into its domain. Walking the many hiking trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and taking in the wild places, lush with the greens of summer and the colors of the rich native flowers blooming in rare abandon, can be transformative.
There is a calmness that befalls you when the machinery of the world is silenced and all around are the natural sounds of water falling, birds calling, insects singing and wind rustling the leaves and grasses. Time spent in nature, among the canopy of trees, has the power to restore and rejuvenate, while opening our senses and reconnecting us to the world.
Over the past century, the land has been transformed with millions of acres of farmland and habitat giving way to urbanization and an unnatural fascination with manicured lawns. With its lawns and exotic ornamental plants, much of the landscape no longer supports functioning ecosystems and the remaining natural areas are no longer large enough to support wildlife.
The good news is there’s a growing movement that understands the importance of native plants to our environment and wildlife, and supports their use in gardens and landscapes. The use of native plants is critically important in preserving biodiversity.
These plants occur naturally within the region in which they evolved and are the ecological basis upon which life depends. According to the Audubon Society, “Without native plants and the insects that co-evolved along with them, local birds cannot survive.” Exotics tend to outcompete native species and actually degrade habitat.
Asheville’s public gardens have understood the importance of using native plants since their inception. And so, for a closer walk among nature, visiting some of the gardens in Asheville is an excellent option. There are several public gardens where the beauty of the landscape combines with nature’s insouciance to provide a respite from our chaotic world.
Asheville Botanical Gardens
In the heart of the city, adjacent to the University of North Carolina at Asheville, you’ll find the Asheville Botanical Gardens, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to study and promotion of native plants and habitats of the Southern Appalachians.
Although located on university property, the gardens receive no funding from the university nor from any governmental entity. They subsist through donations, memberships, endowments and an active group of volunteers who believe in the importance of native plant conservation.
Take a walk along the paths of this 10-acre haven, and experience the diversity of plant life that can be found in this region.
The Asheville Botanical Gardens was conceived in the late 1950s. In 1960, with support from a number of forward-thinking individuals, as well as civic leaders and nature-loving Asheville citizens, the Asheville-Biltmore College Botanical Association was formed and a place had been selected for the establishment of the gardens.
By early 1961, the plans were in place and a landscape architect had been selected to create the original design plans and oversee the work. Since those early days, the Asheville Botanical Gardens has continued to evolve and thrive, providing visiting botanists and nature lovers with an opportunity to connect with nature and enjoy its beauty and serenity.
The Asheville Botanical Gardens is open daily from sunrise to sunset. While there’s no charge for parking or admission, they do encourage donations to help support the maintenance and educational programs of the gardens.
Biltmore Estate Gardens
The Biltmore Estate’s formal and informal gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, considered the father of American landscape architecture. You’ll find the beauty of the Italian Garden impressive and the trees in America’s first managed forest breathtaking. Indeed, Biltmore’s lush landscape is a living tribute to the genius of Olmsted.
Biltmore’s horticulturists continually work in the gardens, changing the displays with the seasons, with the Rose Garden featuring more than 250 varieties. Their goal is to preserve Olmsted’s original vision for the gardens and grounds.
The Biltmore Estate has been concerned with conservation since Edith Vanderbilt sold some 87,000 acres of the Vanderbilt’s “Pisgah Forest” tract to the US Forest Service following George’s death in 1914. This tract became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest in 1916 and the Cradle of Forestry in America. This heritage site is the birthplace of science-based forest management and a century-old model for forest conservation.
The estate is also concerned with sustainability and following the installation of six acres of solar panels and a tree protection project, in 2012, Biltmore was honored for environmental stewardship and presented with the Asheville GreenWorks Hall of Fame Award. And so to this day, Biltmore continues to honor Vanderbilt’s legacy of environmental protection.
A visit to the Biltmore Estate enables you to meander through the 2.5 miles of paths in the manicured gardens, visit the conservatory or hike the estate’s extensive network of trails. You can also walk along the French Broad River or through the lush green forests or open meadows of the estate.
Biltmore’s summer exhibit showcases the beautiful large-scale dramatic glass sculptures of American artist Dale Chihuly artfully juxtaposed within the beautiful gardens.
Dale Chihuly is one of the world’s best-known glass artists. He is also an advocate through the Dale and Leslie Chihuly Foundation where grants are provided to individual artists and art education efforts. Chihuly graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and also taught there full time for more than a decade.
Chihuly is renowned for his ambitious architectural installations in historic cities, museums and botanical gardens around the world.
At Biltmore, the installation will also be presented after dark. Chihuly Nights at Biltmore—by reservation only—provides the visitor with an opportunity to witness the effects of dramatic nighttime lighting upon the luminous colors and graceful forms of Chihuly’s spectacular installations.
You can purchase single entry tickets, or a Biltmore Estate membership will provide you with access to the grounds year-round as well as to the special events at the Biltmore House and Gardens. Nighttime and some of the other events, such as the concert series, require purchased tickets.
North Carolina Arboretum
The NC Arboretum was established in 1986 and is an affiliate campus of the University of North Carolina. This 434-acre public garden is located just south of Asheville inside the Pisgah National Forest, one of the most botanically diverse and beautiful natural settings in America. With its forested coves and meandering creeks, its beauty speaks to our very soul.
The Arboretum includes 65 acres of cultivated gardens that pay tribute to our region’s rich cultural heritage and reinforce the importance of native plants to our world. Summer is an exciting time at the Arboretum, with its seasonal landscape garden exhibits designed to get you outside and into nature.
The Arboretum also includes more than 10 miles of groomed hiking and biking trails designed for all ages and ability levels. Trail options include easy, moderate and difficult levels and are dog-friendly. From the many trails within the Arboretum, hikers have access to other areas such as Lake Powhatan, the Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
In addition to its gardens and trails, events and exhibits bring the outdoors inside and change throughout the year. Events at the Education Center and the Baker Exhibit Center and Greenhouse are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily throughout the season. These innovative educational activities provide additional reasons to visit.
The Arboretum’s newest traveling exhibit, Making Scents: The Art and Passion of Fragrance ®, is on display through September 3rd inside the Baker Exhibit Center and throughout the gardens. This interactive exhibit showcases the history and evocative power of scent. Based on some of Mother Nature’s most fragrant botanicals, it also unveils the plants and flowers behind some of the world’s most iconic perfumes.
You’ll find an exhibit called Earth Skin on display through July 22nd inside the Education Center. Earth Skin is based on the forms and textures of the earth using inspiration from aerial photography of Western North Carolina and topographical maps of local areas, including Pisgah National Forest and Balsam Range. Created by ceramic artists Trish Salmon and Crystal Allen, Earth Skin includes wall structures and pieces designed for mantles, shelves and tables.
Visitors can take advantage of the Guided Forest Trail Walks, which take place on Tuesdays and Saturdays beginning at 1 p.m. at the Baker Exhibit Center. Trained volunteer guides lead small groups along woodland trails, identifying plants and trees and discussing wildflowers, natural history, and the cultural and land use history of the NC Arboretum. These walks last between 1.5 to 2.5 hours and are approximately one to two miles in length.
The Guided Garden Walks occur every Friday morning at 10 a.m. at the Baker Exhibit Center. Trained volunteer guides lead small groups through the Arboretum’s nationally known cultivated gardens and discuss topics such as garden design, seasonal plants, the Arboretum’s history, art and general gardening information.
Both the Forest Trail and Garden Walks are held rain or shine. You should dress for the weather, wear sturdy shoes and bring water. Space is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Groups of five or more are required to pre-register by calling (828) 665-2492. Walks are free, however, donations to The North Carolina Arboretum Society are appreciated.
The Bonsai Exhibition Garden, established in 2005, is world-renowned and can host up to 50 specimens at a time. Bonsai, while small in size have a big impact in the horticulture and art world. The Arboretum has over 100 bonsai in its collection, which is botanically diverse and includes native plants as well as traditional Asian bonsai, tropical plants and American species.
A short hike to the Azalea Garden, located by the banks of Bent Creek, will take you to the National Native Azalea Collection featuring nearly every species of azalea native to the US, along with some other natural and selected hybrids. You’ll find azaleas blooming through August.
The NC Arboretum is part of the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, a system of 80 Experimental Forests and Ranges that are administered by the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. The system provides opportunities for long-term science and management studies, which supplies a wealth of data and knowledge of environmental changes in both natural and managed forest and rangeland ecosystems throughout the US.
As part of the Experimental Forest system, the NC Arboretum supports ecosystem research and helps the Forest Service and other entities meet current and future conservation challenges through the synthesis of data.
As an educational center and affiliate of UNC, the NC Arboretum is understandably focused on our endangered butterflies and pollinators. They have created plants and nesting sites for butterfly species, and the plants selected for the seasonally-planted landscapes and container gardens supports foods—both pollen and nectar—for insects, with a focus on butterflies.
The NC Arboretum also was recently designated as the seventh educational institution in the nation—and the first campus in North Carolina—to be certified as an affiliate of the Bee Campus USA program. According to Phyllis Stiles, Director of Bee Campus USA, ”Imperiled pollinators are responsible for the reproduction of more than three-quarters of the world’s plant and tree species.” The Bee Campus program is designed to marshal the strengths of educational campuses for the benefit of pollinators.
The NC Arboretum does not charge a per person admission fee, only a parking fee of $14 for personal vehicles. A half-price parking special is offered on the first Tuesday of every month for personal vehicles. Access into the property is free for pedestrians, bikers and members of the NC Arboretum Society. The Arboretum’s summer hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (the entrance gate closes at 8 p.m.)