"Feel that bark," volunteer guide Roland Flory instructs our small tour group at Raleigh's J.C. Raulston Arboretum on a cold, overcast March afternoon. We run our hands along the tree's velvety, cinnamon-colored surface, oohing and ahing at its smoothness. "That's a Japanese crepe myrtle," Flory says. "It's the largest one in North Carolina."
Before today, I had never been to the Raulston Arboretum. I didn't know it existed. I'm continually amazed as we wind around the garden, passing the deliciously perfumed white blossoms of the Japanese paperbrush and the contorted, Dr. Seussian limbs of the Harry Lauder walking stick. But Flory assures me that even if I'd been here before, I'd still be making new discoveries.
"This place is always changing," he says. "You'd have to come every week to keep up with all the plants here."
The arboretum's dynamism stems from its intended mission: to serve as what its late founder and namesake, J.C. Raulston, termed "a living laboratory." Raulston, who established the arboretum in 1976, was a professor of horticultural science at N.C. State University. Credited with introducing and promoting countless plants into contemporary horticulture, he designed the 10-acre space to be a research and teaching garden, a resource for academics and students and green industry professionals. Here, plants from around the world are trialed and evaluated for their ability to adapt to Piedmont conditions. Those that thrive often end up in local nurseries, made available to the public.
Indeed, several members of our tour group are researching what to plant in their own gardens. One woman jots down the scientific name of a fragrant shrub that blooms in winter; another couple asks where to purchase some of the arboretum's more unusual plants. (Flory refers them to Plant Delights, a nearby Raleigh nursery with a global customer base.)
The layout of the arboretum takes home gardening interests into account. The space is divided into 19 themed gardens intended to inspire landscape design ideas. There's the Rooftop Garden atop the arboretum's education center, featuring heat- and drought-resistant plants that insulate the building and absorb runoff; there's also the Winter Garden, which hosts winter irises, golden paper bushes and other blooming, fragrant plants that peak between October and March. Instructional signage provides further information for curious visitors eager to replicate these designs at home.
For botanical novices like me, the beauty of the arboretum—and the diversity of its more than 5,000 plants—is enough of a draw. I marvel at the thick blanket of white petals strewn around the kew magnolia tree, in bloom despite the chill. I admire the lush red flowers of the Japanese camellia and rest on a bench nestled among greenery, already planning a return trip with a book on a warmer day.
I spot other casual visitors: a young father pushing a baby stroller, an amateur photographer crouched among the small blossoms of the spring star flower, a heavily made-up girl posing for her senior photos. The arrival of spring brings a surge of visitors as the Rose Garden, and its 200 different specimens of flowers, begins to bloom.
Flory also notes that the White Garden— a beautiful stretch of lawn and white-flowered plants featuring a Victorian gazebo, stone walls and a small garden pool—is a popular destination for weddings and receptions. It's clear why; the wisteria and Japanese snowbells and magnolias, set against hollies and conifers, are simply picture-perfect.
But nothing here is static. As plants are trialed and seasons change, there's always potential for new botanical discoveries. Even the themes of the gardens, most of which were developed by NCSU students in landscape horticulture classes, are apt to change over time. That means there's reason to visit again and again, which is easy enough to do; the Raulston Arboretum is free and open to the public year-round.
April and May are especially good times to visit, Flory says.
"That's the time that everything really starts popping."