North Carolina is home to amazingly rich flora, including many plant species found nowhere else in the world. For more than half a century, the North Carolina Botanical Garden, part of the University of North Carolina campus, has been dedicated to conserving that unique botanical legacy. Today, they cultivate more than 1,100 acres of garden and conservation areas, safeguard rare and endangered plant species from extinction, and educate new generations of plant lovers and environmental citizens.
This is much more than a display garden. It is a robust ecosystem where people can discover the natural world, experience its healing and restorative power, and understand why conservation is imperative to our quality of life. Year-round native plant gardening makes for a unique and beautiful landscape, from the tiny ephemerals that pop up in early spring to the stunning, architectural seed heads of fall.
The concept of the conservation garden was developed at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in the early 1990s to represent the many conservation-related activities that were at the heart of the Garden’s mission and programs. A sample of those activities includes propagating native plants to ensure that populations are not damaged by wild collecting, banking seed for reintroduction and protection against extinction, habitat conservation to preserve naturally occurring biological diversity and gardens that display and demonstrate native biodiversity and sustainable gardening practices.
Entrance Garden: Welcoming you to the North Carolina Botanical Garden, these beds feature a variety of southeastern native wildflowers, shrubs, and trees and showcase how their different forms and characteristics can enhance the landscape. The James Ward Gazebo is a great rendezvous point for people coming to the Garden for the first time.
Children’s Wonder Garden: This special area lets children play outdoors and learn about nature in a space just for them. The Wonder Garden includes digging areas, wooden blocks, a fairy place, a picnic lawn, the little woods, a bird blind, and a pollinator garden where children can search for butterflies.
Courtyard Gardens: The Courtyard Garden of the Allen Education Center is a beautifully framed event space that showcases southeastern native species and their cultivars in tiered garden beds. At the base of the south-facing slope, you can see the compost demonstration area and connect to the Children’s Wonder Garden, Habitat Gardens or Nature Trails that cross Meeting-of-the-Waters Creek.
Piedmont Habitat: Discover wildflower and grass species native to southeastern Piedmont as you walk along the gently curving path. This collection displays plants in assemblages found in natural plant communities and also in more contrived horticultural scenes, complete with vintage agricultural implements. The iconic Cattail Gate will lead you deeper into the garden.
Sandhills Habitat: Experience the rolling sandhills of eastern North Carolina and see if you can spot the state tree, the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris). Each year, Garden staff conduct controlled burns to simulate the natural fires that are a characteristic of longleaf wiregrass ecosystems.
Coastal Plain Habitat: Cross the bridge over the Turtle Pond and walk along the boardwalk into the open savannas and tangled pocosins characteristic of the southeastern coastal plain. In the bald cypress grove, you will find the seasonally wet Salamander Pool which is a safe breeding ground for local amphibians.
Mountain Habitat: Venture into the mountains where rich soil supports the growth of tall trees. In their shade, you will encounter native ferns and wildflowers as well as flowering shrubs and understory trees. While here, relax in the Storytellers’ Chair or step into the Paul Green Cabin, the writing retreat of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Green.
Perennial Circle: Each month provides a different display of the often common and sometimes rare wildflowers, shrubs, and trees native to the southeastern United States. In summer, this garden space is a riot of changing color as a backdrop for weddings and ceremonies. Winter interest is in discovering the architecture of stems and seeds left for their habitat and beauty.
Water Gardens: All of the aquatic plants in the water gardens are native to the southeastern United States. This collection includes elegant American white water lilies and American lotus-lilies. The water garden’s emergent plants like heartleaf pickerelweed and powdery alligator-flag are magnets for dragonflies. The plants and the wildlife remain in these water gardens year-round.
Carnivorous Plant Collection: The southeastern US is home to the world’s most diverse collection of insect-eating plants. Inside these raised beds, you will find insectivorous plants like sundews, pitcher plants, and the world-famous Venus flytraps.
Plant Family Garden: A feature of some of the very oldest botanical gardens, a plant family garden groups closely related plants. The similarities in floral structures and other shared features are what organize plants into groups called families. This is the garden to explore the taxonomic relationships between many native and other familiar horticultural plants.
Totten Oak Garden: This display features a variety of native southeastern plants that do well in low-maintenance situations. Drought-tolerant plants, ferns that do well in sunny locations, evergreen groundcovers, and flowering perennials that require little attention are alternatives to the modern grass lawn. Visit the giant Rare Plant Chess Set, and rest in the Ken Moore Gathering Circle.
Herb Garden: Learn about 500 species, cultivars, and varieties of plants that are grouped according to their culinary, medicinal, and economic or industrial significance. The Herb Garden also features a national collection of rosemary cultivars, a wooden cottage known as the Herb House and a Rose Arbor.
Poisonous Plants Garden: Many plants contain toxic chemical compounds but they are often limited to a particular part of the plant and/or specific form of exposure (touched, eaten or inhaled). Some compounds protect the plant from browsing animals and some also have medicinal uses at the proper concentration. Stroll this garden to learn more about plant chemistry!
Native American Garden: Learn about plants that were used for medicine, ceremonies, and everyday living by Native Americans of the southeastern United States. Visitors may also pause to enjoy the relaxing sounds of the Native American Stream.
The James & Delight Allen Education Center is the first state-owned building in North Carolina to earn LEED Platinum status, the highest level of green building design. Inside, you'll find the garden shop, art gallery, library, and more.
Daily Plant Sale: Open from March through December in the pavilion right outside the Garden Shop, the Daily Plant Sale features a rotating selection of southeastern native plants grown right here at the NCBG nursery. Check their website to see what’s available now.
DeBerry Gallery: The Arthur S. DeBerry Gallery for Botanical Art & Illustration, a carefully designed side-room within the Pegg Exhibit Hall, provides an intimate setting for viewing selected two-dimensional works of art—botanically or nature-inspired drawings, paintings, and photographs. Exhibits rotate every two months and feature works by local artists.
Burke & Judy Davis Garden Shop: The James & Delight Allen Education Center houses the Burke and Judy Davis Gift Shop, where you will find gardening, natural history, botany, and children’s books for purchase, as well as plants, jewelry, educational toys, pottery and handicrafts by local artists.
Eleanor Smith Pegg Exhibit Hall: The Eleanor Smith Pegg Exhibit and Information Hall, located in the central area of the building, welcomes visitors as they enter the Garden through the large breezeway. The main floor of this wing accommodates a gift shop and plant sales area as well as the Green Gardener Reference Room, where visitors can ask about Earth-friendly gardening and consult the reference book collection, a gallery for art exhibits, and a special room for Garden volunteers. The upper floor provides space for administrative offices and production of Garden literature.
Peacock Discovery Room: Thanks to a generous gift by Florence and James Peacock, families can now enjoy a hands-on, indoor space to learn about and explore the plants, animals, and habitats of the Garden. The room features a wall-size mural with “I Spy” activity, cozy reading nook with a selection of rotating nature books, three-dimensional tree, an interactive felt wall, nature displays, and much more. Activities and displays change seasonally, so come back often!
Sarah Fore Gaines Library: The Garden’s reference library, including the Addie Totten Collection, is housed in the James & Delight Allen Education Center. It contains books, journals, and other reference materials on horticulture, botany, plants of the southeastern United States, and natural history. This reference library is open to the public during regular visiting hours, though materials may not be checked out.
The Piedmont Nature Trails, right behind the display gardens and Allen Education Center, provide over three miles of hiking through 88 acres of typical North Carolina forest. After-hours parking is available in the Garden’s overflow lot and along Laurel Hill Road. Leashed pets are welcome on the trails.
Streamside Trail: The Streamside Trail (1/2 mile loop) crosses Meeting-of- the-Waters Creek twice as it meanders through the riparian section of the site. A self-guided brochure explaining botanical and ecological features of the trail is available at the information kiosk at the trail entrance.
Oak-Hickory Trail: The Oak-Hickory Trail (3/4 mile loop) traverses hillier portions of the site where you will encounter a diversity of hardwood and evergreen trees, shrubs, and woodland wildflowers. Follow the lettered posts to help you navigate the trail.
Elephant Rock Trail: The Elephant Rock Trail (1 mile) is a one-way extension of the Oak-Hickory Trail. Hikers can return to the garden the way they came or follow the trail along Morgan Creek and exit at the trail’s intersection with Ashe Place.
Bike-Pedestrian Path: A Bike-Pedestrian Path extends from Old Mason Farm Road to Laurel Hill Road to provide easy access to the trail system.
The North Carolina Botanical Garden and the Garden Club of North Carolina, Inc. co-sponsor the North Carolina Wildflower of the Year program. Started in 1982, this conservation project celebrates one southeastern native wildflower each year. The 2019 Wildflower of the Year was Narrow-leaf mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium). This wonderful member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) is native throughout the central and eastern United States and can be found in dry, open rocky woods, prairies, fields, and roadsides. Versatile and easy to grow, this tough little perennial is at home in a variety of conditions from moist to dry, well-drained soils and full sun to partial shade.
Text and cover image courtesy of North Carolina Botanical Garden.