endangered, conservation, squirrel, flying squirrel

What is SASRI and Why Do We Care?

Posted Posted in SHR-News

The Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI) 2018 annual meeting took place on Thursday, November 8 at the Bent Creek Experimental Forest outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

This partnership of people from diverse interests was formed in 2013 for the common goal of restoring spruce-fir ecosystems across high elevation landscapes of the Southern Blue Ridge. Referred to as “Islands in the Sky”, these pocket ecosystems at one time covered vast expanses of mountain landscape, but are now only found sparsely in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

After the Everglades in South Florida, spruce-fir forests are the second most endangered ecosystem in the United States. Over the last century, they have been greatly reduced across the southern Appalachians largely due to logging. Adding insult to injury, severe slash fires 100 years ago were followed by rains washing away the seed and soil profile necessary for species regeneration. Growth is slow at high elevations making the regeneration that much more of a challenge. Most red spruce present today were planted in the 1940s as a restoration effort after those fires, with current restoration efforts still attempting to replace what was lost then. Today the spruce-fir forests face increased pressure from acid rain, rising temperatures, poor management and drought.

Red spruce was chosen as the best species for restoration because it is the conifer least in decline. Another significant motivating factor for choosing red spruce was to help the Carolina northern flying squirrel, a federally endangered species. This squirrel feeds on mycorrhizal fungi, or truffles, that grow at the roots of red spruce. Also, southern Carolina flying squirrels carry a harmful gut parasite that they pass along to northern Carolina flying squirrels where their territories overlap. The oil from red spruce staminate cones that the squirrels feed on suppresses that parasite, protecting their overall health. Not only home to the northern Carolina flying squirrels, these forests also support the federally endangered spruce-fir moss spider as well as other species of conservation concern such as the norther saw-whet owl, black-capped chickadee and several salamander species.

SASRI, comprised of private, state, federal and non-governmental organizations, recognizes the importance of this ecosystem for its ecological, aesthetic, recreational, economic and cultural values. Some of the other organizations involved include the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Blue Ridge Discovery Center, Grandfather Mountain Foundation, NC Forest Service and Appalachian Mountain Joint Venture. As a founding organization and continuing Steering Committee and Planting and Propagation Committee members, we spent the day with our partners and interested parties discussing updates and findings from the past year. SHR Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks and Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel gave a presentation on the status of our red spruce propagation and discussed some of the coming projects to propagate for new public land sites.

In the spirit of the Reserve’s mission to protect and conserve native plants and their ecosystems, we are dedicated to helping reverse the decline and reinvigorate the vitality of spruce-fir forests in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Due to our high-elevation location, our Nursery Complex is uniquely poised to grow red spruce seedlings successfully. Currently, there is no other facility in the southeastern US growing red spruce for restoration, which makes the Reserve’s ability to continue these propagation efforts for this partnership very important.

Photo provided by USGS

native plant rescue, southern gardens, biodiversity

Southern Highlands Reserve Helps Rescue Native Plants at High Hampton Resort

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Southern Highlands Reserve recently had the opportunity to assist in a local native plant rescue at the historic High Hampton Resort in Cashiers, NC. A redesign of its golf course by award-winning course designer Tom Fazio involved expansion into previously wooded and undeveloped areas. As such, a wide variety of native plants and wildflowers needed to be cleared.

In June, while hiking through the areas for future golf greens and admiring the flora, homeowners Sally Price and Beth Preston, along with High Hampton Vice President Owen Schultz, began discussing the possibility of saving many of these plants prior to construction. Price, who holds a native plant studies certificate from Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and Preston quickly volunteered to lead the effort so that residents would be able to collect plants and relocate them to their private properties—a benefit not only to the homeowners, but also to the overall ecosystem at the Resort. Able to increase their individual plant populations and potentially gain new species, these good stewards of the community also helped preserve the system’s existing state of balance.

They contacted local native plant experts, including SHR Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks and Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel, along with Adam Bigelow of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Jeff Zahner of Chattooga Gardens in Cashiers and Preston Montague of The Native Plant Podcast. With various backgrounds related to native plants of the region, this group came together to help identify species valuable for relocation and educate homeowners on best practices for plant transport and replanting to ensure long-term survival. In return, High Hampton Resort generously allowed SHR to harvest and transplant a total of 100 new plants— including trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, yellow lady slippers, orchids, shining club moss, fawn’s breath, wild ginger, partridgeberry and featherbells—to the Reserve.

Global deforestation and loss of habitat is ever increasing from human activities such as large-scale agriculture, logging, mining and infrastructure construction. A record was set in 2016 with 29.7 million hectares (73.4 million acres) of global tree cover loss [1]. We are grateful to the High Hampton Resort members who had the awareness to conserve and preserve within their own community when the opportunity arose.

[1] World Resources Institute 

gardens, native plants, gardening, western north carolina

Gardener’s Corner

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Autumn, marked by cooler weather and shortening days as Earth’s axis begins to tilt away from the sun, transitions us from summer’s lush abundance to winter’s quiet dormancy, and refers in its origins to the passing of the year. Once commonly referred to as harvest, western cultures have lost that broader association with the land since becoming predominantly urban.

At the Reserve we are, of course, still very tied to nature and its rhythms, and are working on timely tasks dictated by the Earth’s rotation and the seasons it creates. Harvest, autumn or (the preferred term in the United States) fall, has us collecting those fallen leaves to shred for leaf mulch in beds and bare spots. While hardwood mulch is preferable for trails, we use leaf mulch elsewhere because it is naturally occurring, native to the location, produces a lower carbon footprint and helps build mycorrhizal fungi which symbiotically partners with plants to provide a secondary root system and sustainable nutrition [1].

Of course, weeding continues, but now is an especially important time to remove aggressive weeds before they produce seeds. Some of the problematic plants that you may want to keep an eye out for in your garden are Pennsylvania smartweed, garlic mustard, stilt grass, chickweed, henbit and dead nettle. Concurrently, we are also collecting and storing the seeds of the plants we prefer—non-invasive natives—which we will propagate later this year or next. Recently, we have been planting perennials, red spruce and plants rescued from nearby High Hampton Resort . In our turf areas, we have been aerating and over-seeding as regular annual maintenance for overall turf health and enhancement. We also had our soils tested recently to identify needs for optimal turf health in the next growing season, carefully adhering to our organic protocol.

Our water mitigation efforts continue along with the rain, and we have focused on erosion prevention. After working with Sitework Studios and Robinson Associates Consulting Engineers last spring to research and develop best practices for water mitigation, we have begun implementing recommended landscape treatments. First, we mapped the sites, and then began ground truthing the water as it traveled across the Reserve. We are monitoring both sheet and channel flow of rain water during storms to evaluate varying storm intensities and the effects on our landscape. The modifications include adding hydra humps with rock outlets, adding turf and rock swales, and altering existing swales to better direct the water. We are also constructing step pools and rock check damns within the swales to control water velocity. Finally, we are experimenting with large woody debris (LWD) in a subwatershed to slow sheet-flow across the landscape and prevent valuable soil and nutrient loss.

mountain pond, wnc, gardens, gardening tips

If you have not yet tended to any of these tasks relevant for your home and garden, there is still time. In preparation for the coming winter, we have some seasonal suggestions:

  • Top dress trees, shrubs and perennials with a layer of composted or aged cow or horse manure. Doing this during the winter months enables the nutrients to stay in place longer and make their way down into the soil to the roots.
  • Prune deciduous trees and shrubs. You can better see the branching structure in the winter. Additionally, dormancy prevents tissue regeneration until spring, meaning the plant will not suffer from energy loss or sap flow.
  • Sow wildflower and other native plant seeds. This provides the cold period necessary for some seeds to germinate in the spring.
  • Plant spring flowering bulbs that will generate roots and come up in the spring.
  • Dig up dahlia roots after a frost or two and place them on top of mulch. Once the roots dry out, store them in peat moss inside cardboard boxes in a cool, dark location. They will be ready to replant in the spring after the last frost.
  • Transplant trees, shrubs and perennials to preferred locations. Transplanting while dormant keeps plants from going into shock.
  • Collect leaves from turf areas and move to wooded areas for compost. This is preferable to burning, which adds pollutants to the air and increases respiratory health issues.
  • Prevent snow from accumulating on evergreen trees and shrubs to avoid bending and breaking of branches.
  • Winterize any irrigation pipes that may be in danger of freezing.


[1] Rootgrow



red spruce, restoration, native plants, conservation

German Forestry Society Visits Red Spruce Restoration Site

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Southern Highlands Reserve was honored to join the United States Forest Service (USFS) on Friday, October 5, to welcome 17 members of the German Forestry Society (GFS), led by Hans C. Rohr, to Flat Laurel in the Pisgah National Forest. The group included a wilderness researcher, high-ranking government forestry officials, and an advisor to German Prime Minister Angela Merkel on matters of the environment. This unprecedented visit stems from the origin of the USFS.

In 1888, George Washington Vanderbilt visited Asheville for relief from malaria-like symptoms. Captivated by the scenic beauty of the landscape, he purchased property and built the mansion later named Biltmore. Eventually owning more than 125,000 acres of forest, including virgin stands, Vanderbilt hired Fredrick Law Olmsted to design the estate grounds. Olmsted brought along Gifford Pinchot, one of the only two foresters in the U.S. at the time, who came to be known as the father of American forestry. Pisgah Forest was the first regularly managed forest with the goal of earning income from timber planted in areas left bare from fire, grazing and previous logging.

Pinchot recommended his successor, Dr. Carl A. Schenck, a German forester who opened the Biltmore School of Forestry in 1898. Congress later designated the school “The Cradle of Forestry” in America’s Forest Discovery Center, thereby establishing the first forestry school in the nation [1]. Over the past few decades, John C. Palmer, a now-retired Haywood Community College forestry professor, has been visiting Germany to learn more about Dr. Schenck. He established a relationship with Schenck’s descendants, as well as between the Society of American Foresters (SAF) and the GFS. A 2014 visit by the SAF to Germany led to this reciprocal visit by the GFS to see the birthplace of American forestry and learn about current USFS practices in the southern Appalachians and coastal plain.

Pisgah District Ranger Dave Casey led the talk, beginning with an overview of the district, stating that U.S. forests are prized as resources for recreation, and that over half of the district is not managed commercially while wilderness areas are not managed at all. Casey was joined by Rachel Dickson of the Pisgah Zone Silviculture Program, and the two explained that as public servants, the USFS has responded to the wishes of the public to make timber production less of a priority. Also, compared to those in the West, national forests in the eastern U.S. do not contribute a large volume to timber production. As such, current USFS efforts include restoration, driven by ecological motives to improve forest diversity and health.

Over the last century, spruce-fir forests have been greatly reduced across the southern Appalachians due to logging. Balds visible today are the result of severe fires 100 years ago followed by rains which washed away the seed and soil profile necessary for species regeneration, coupled with slow growth at the high elevation. Red spruce present today were planted in the 1940s as a restoration effort after those slash fires, with current restoration efforts still attempting to restore what was lost.

Red spruce was considered the best restoration candidate because it is the conifer species least in decline. Another motivating factor for choosing red spruce was to help the Carolina northern flying squirrel, a federally endangered species. This squirrel feeds on mycorrhizal fungi, or truffles, that grow at the roots of red spruce. Additionally, southern Carolina flying squirrels carry a harmful gut parasite that they pass along to northern Carolina flying squirrels at the boundary overlap. When eaten, the oil from red spruce needles suppresses that harmful gut parasite, protecting the health of the squirrels.

The Flat Laurel site was selected for a visit on the GFS tour to discuss red spruce restoration, illustrated by the 2017 planting of 900 red spruce under yellow birch across five acres. This year, USFS will girdle the overstory to gradually release the young red spruce trees from competition. This process involves strict parameters and will exclude deciduous trees under seven inches in caliper, yellow birch with exfoliating bark used by northern Carolina flying squirrels to build dreys (nests), and trees with cavities that can be used by the squirrels as dreys. In collaboration with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), the planting location was based on proximity to larger NCWRC lands, thereby producing stepping stones to more habitat.

As a founding member of the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI), formed to restore red spruce and the vitality of spruce-fir forests in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, SHR Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks discussed our support as propagator and provider of the young trees. Holdbrooks spoke to the group about our strategy for red spruce propagation to produce the highest possible success rates once planted in the wild. We’ve learned that planting fewer trees between three and four years of age is more successful than planting a larger quantity of plugs (younger trees). This way, the trees are tall and strong enough to survive abundant leaf-fall from deciduous hardwoods. Additionally, since no one is coming back to water after planting, it is important for these larger root balls to hold as much moisture as possible. Not only are these trees larger, they are also free from being rootbound because we grow them in specially designed Rootmaker pots.

Thanks to these propagation strategies, trees that survive the first year in the wild will most likely live a full lifespan of 350 years or more, barring natural disaster. One year after planting the 900 Flat Laurel trees, we estimate a mortality rate of less than 10%—an extremely successful conservation project. Dave Casey stated the USFS, “initially started restoration efforts by transplanting naturally regenerated seedlings which is unsustainable and drastically reduced their capacity to restore red spruce at a meaningful scale. Thanks to SHR—interwoven into our restoration efforts from planning, outreach, education and implementation—we are now making a meaningful impact together on red spruce restoration.”


[1] Citizen Times

gardens, conservation, native plants, lake toxaway

How You Can Help Grow a Greener World

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Biodiversity refers to the diversity, or variety, of living organisms on the planet within a given ecosystem, as well as the variety of ecosystem types. This diversity is indispensable to the dynamic processes that keep ecosystems healthy. The wider the range of species, the more resilient an ecosystem is in the face of stress and disease. At the top of the food chain, humans depend on all beneath us, down to the insects necessary for crop pollination and even microorganisms with which we enjoy symbiotic relationships [1]. Ultimately, each species is of value because of the role that it plays within the greater whole. When a particular species is removed from the equation, its function is no longer performed, ultimately leading to benefits or detriments for other directly related species.A prime example is the introduction of Buddleia davidii, commonly known as butterfly bush, as it is often planted to attract butterflies. Though butterflies lay eggs on the shrub, it provides no nutrition for the hatched caterpillars which are then left to die. Native to Japan but naturalized in the United States with no animal species to keep it in check, this dense shrub spreads rapidly, prohibiting the growth of nutritious native species (e.g. milkweeds, violets, and asters).

A recent study estimated the extinction rate has increased a hundredfold over the last century, and humans seem to be responsible [1]. As we grow in number (the world population is expected to reach more than 10 billion by 2060) we use more resources, leaving fewer for other species. Over-hunting, poaching, pollution, fragmentation and loss of habitat, over-exploitation of biological resources, an increase in invasive species and climate change have all contributed to the rise of the extinction rate.

This sharp decline in biodiversity is affecting every region of the world, threatening the ability of people to find adequate food and clean drinking water, according to a United Nations report. “Earth is losing species at an unsustainable rate—more than 1,000 times the natural speed of evolution. We are losing not only certain species, but the populations of many species are declining [2].” The scale of impact is such that many scientists advocate defining this as a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, named from anthropo for “man” because human-kind is causing these mass extinctions [3].

That said, how can each of us play a part in supporting biodiversity for the benefit not only of those other species, but also ourselves? Opportunities exist for involvement on many levels and the choice is, of course, up to each of us. However, it all starts with awareness. Once we become informed, we can then choose how best to become involved, depending on our individual circumstances and resources.

Of the many notable issues, one that stands out to us right now is the “Botany Bill” (HR1054 and S3240), introduced to the House of Representatives in February 2017. The bill is intended to promote botanical research and education to support the land management responsibilities of the Department of the Interior [4]. This includes research funding to develop effective approaches for habitat restoration and directly relates to our red spruce restoration work which is crucial to the survival of the federally endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel. If you would like to learn more about what you can do to promote this bill, visit see The Botany Bill’s How to Help page [5].

Many resources are available for you to become informed about critical environmental issues and legislation. You may already have your favorites, but if not, these websites can help you get started: Govtracks.usCongress.gov and The Nature Conservancy. If you are just beginning the journey to become a part of the process, don’t get overwhelmed, but instead focus on what calls to you most. One of the things you can do in your daily life is reduce your carbon footprint—even small steps add up and changes in habit pay off exponentially over time. Much of what we have been told about being “green” is simply a marketing strategy, but a truly sustainable lifestyle comes from being intentional in small ways, daily. For example, keep a reusable, BPA-free water bottle with you instead of drinking disposable bottled water. Another important action you can take is speaking up; let your legislators and other key decision makers know what is important to you. Finally, our favorite way to make a difference is by planting native plants, which provide sustenance for native animals, thereby advancing the natural cycles of our ecosystem.



[1] BBC

[2] Independent

[3] Smithsonian Magazine

[4] The Botany Bill

[5] The Botany Bill, How to Help

flowers, gardens, native plants, liatris

Gardener’s Corner with Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel

Posted Posted in SHR-News

With its warm weather and long days, summer beckons us outside and into its fruits of full bloom. We have been adding to the abundance by planting perennials for more even color throughout the garden.

Another object of plenty has been rainfall. Few days have been without any, and many days have been filled with hard, soaking rains. One side effect is leaf gall (Exobasidium vaccinii) [1]—a fungal disease common to native Rhododendron species and Leucothoe, exacerbated by rain. We have spent much of the summer removing this pest before it spreads further. We have also been spraying Rhododendron buds with ecologically friendly horticultural oil to control leafhoppers which transmit bud blast—another fungal pathogen that kills the buds [2]. We continue to monitor our hemlocks for adult woolly adelgids, the non-native insects that are decimating the hemlock forests due to the lack of natural predator. We use dormant oil in this case as well to treat the pest, but we don’t stop there. Healthy trees are less susceptible to infestation, so we check the soil to see what may be at the root, so to speak, of the cause. And summer is always the season for pulling and spraying weeds.

In effort to help reduce our carbon footprint, we have been spreading wood chip mulch back into the woodlands and onto our trails. The natural process of decomposition does not occur when we remove deadwood and fallen branches from the landscape, so any additional that we can add back is a benefit.

With regards to the Core Park design, ground truthing for a new short trail from Rattlesnake Trail to the Nursery Complex is complete, and construction is soon to be underway. We are renovating the Sunken Garden by adding Perma Till to increase drainage within the walls, as well as adding more coneflowers. Phase two of the Vaseyi Trail boardwalk is soon to begin to help protect the delicate ecosystem through which it passes. Finally, ground truthing is in progress in preparation for water mitigation work that will take place over the fall and winter. We are flagging high priority areas needing to be addressed based on recent analysis from Sitework Studios and Robinson Engineering.

native plants, pollination, flowers, gardens
Butterfly Weed at Southern Highlands Reserve

We recently hosted a tour for this year’s Cullowhee Native Plant Conference, and also attended conference workshops for continued education on all things native. One note of interest is that $43 billion per year is spent on the necessary control of invasive non-native species—more than is spent in disaster relief. Lecturer and author Claudia West spoke on the importance of using a small number of species within a single garden design for a distinct concept, thereby producing a stronger emotional response. Also, in this post-wild age, nature creates syngameons—groups of like species able to exchange genes indirectly and produce hybrids—as survival a technique.

Summer is also the season of seeds which we have been collecting for propagation—Trillium, Heuchera and others. Many of these will go back into the Reserve, while others will be available at the 2018 Native Plant Sale! It is scheduled for August 24 from 9 am to 3 pm. This is your opportunity to bring home some of the native plants featured in our gardens. We hope to see you there, and touring the gardens at summer’s end!

Image at Top: Liatris spicata

[1] Source: Clemson Cooperative Extension

[2] Source: Royal Horticultural Society

butterfly, biodiversity, ecology, nature

Cultivating Reciprocity: Plants and Animals in Your Garden

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Cultivate is an active verb. We cultivate our gardens, among other things; it’s human endeavor. As such, it involves not only physical labor, but also planning, strategizing. Specifically, what to plant and how to arrange and design those particular species are among the first decisions that must be made. This decision-making process can be as much of the joy in gardening as smelling the roses after the fact. But in this process, we can get lost; we can fail to see the forest for the trees. While aesthetics play an obvious and central role in gardening, the big picture is important to keep in mind, and understanding nature’s reciprocity can help us focus back on the “forest”.

Microcosms of nature, gardens need balance, and a good place to begin building a sustainable environment is with insects. The smallest of creatures at the bottom of the food chain are those that provide sustenance for others. Often thought of as pests, native bugs not only feed other important members of this web of life, but they also prey on some of the unwanted insects that can damage plants. Ladybugs prey on aphids while praying mantises and spiders prey on a variety of other insects and insect larva, all of which will destroy plants. Worms are decomposers, creating more nutrient rich soil. While caterpillars eat plants, some butterfly species are endangered, therefore perhaps worth the small sacrifice in the long run. And of course, having caterpillars means having butterflies, which brings us to pollinators.

Three quarters of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators [1]. These include not only insects such as bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, ants and even mosquitoes, but also birds and bats. In the continental U.S., hummingbirds help pollinate wildflowers. Nectar is essential to these little energy burners, and is far more nutritious than sugar-water. Generally, they are attracted to reds and yellows, and particularly enjoy columbines; trumpet, coral and honeysuckle vines; and bee balm. They also feed on many of the beneficial insects, and undesirable aphids, as do other native bird species.

biodiversity, nature, ecology, butterflies
Clymene Moth (Haploa clymene)

Frogs and toads, like birds, feed on a garden’s destructive insects. Bats are not only beneficial as pollinators, but they also eat mosquitos, which though they can pollinate, can also keep us out of the garden. Snakes, owls, hawks, bobcats and foxes eat moles, voles and chipmunks which dig vast tunnels systems drying out the soil, depleting the plants and causing erosion. Voles also eat the roots of perennials. Rabbits are generally unwanted in a garden, but they do help to fertilize the soil, as do deer and bears.

Native plants provide food and shelter for the beneficial garden animals, that in turn protect the plants. Dead wood and old foliage can be home for insects and smaller animals, as well as fungi and moss. Planting a range of natives for every season will keep them coming, and evergreens like spruce, firs and others, make seasonal homes for the migrators and year-round homes for those that stay.

In contrast, while native plants support native animals, non-native plants provide no nutrition for those same native animals. As food sources diminish, so does the population, from the insects on up the food chain, ultimately including the top—us. We may be at the top, but we are still only a part of the larger whole. We reap what we sow, and what benefits one, benefits all.

Reciprocate is also an active verb, and one thing nature does well. A biodiverse ecosystem is full of reciprocal relationships—exchanges involving mutual benefit. As we cultivate our gardens, it helps to step back, and see the garden not only as a source of human enjoyment, but also a habitat for all the life that will sustain it. A focus on native species will foster a healthy exchange between the fauna and flora, and this will allow us, should we choose, to be just a bit more passive, to sit back and enjoy all that we—and nature—have created.


Image at Top: Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly on Rhododendron maximum

[1] Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service

moss, forest, nature, reserve

Being There: The Benefits of Being in Nature

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Stop what you’re doing. Get up. Walk outside. Chances are, depending on where you are at the time, you will immediately feel a little bit better—your mood may lighten, your thoughts may free up and your perspective may shift just a bit. Physical movement and change of light alone can account for some of this, but something more is involved when we move from the physically sedentary but emotionally hectic space and pace of the built world out into the natural world.

More and more research is being done on the health benefits of spending time in nature. Of course, the idea that nature heals is not a new concept or a recent discovery. It is simply something that we seem to have forgotten along the way. Studies show that the average contemporary American spends a surprising 90% of the time indoors, with this increasing as an individual ages [1]. So our arrival at such a condition has left us with nowhere to go but back to where we began—nature.

In fact, we have been so far removed from the outdoors that even five minutes of “green exercise”—any exercise practiced outdoors in the natural environment—has been found to improve self-esteem and mood. Also, the simple fact of being outside naturally leads to an increase in movement. No longer confined to a small space, often a desk, we are more inclined to explore and play. Some studies show that simply having a window outside one’s hospital bed hastens recovery and improves overall health, and a growing trend in landscape architecture is to design therapeutic garden spaces accessible to all.

Another advantage of being outside results from the absorption of vitamin D. Our skin can take in high doses from exposure to the sun, which is a much more effective source than the supplement form. The benefits of increased levels of vitamin D include prevention against cancer, osteoporosis, heart attacks and strokes as well as other diseases, not to mention depression [2]. Light levels alone affect brain chemicals related to mood and sleep, and of course better sleep again improves one’s mood. Sunlight is not only much more intense than artificial light, but is also full spectrum. The range of color and intensity as the days and seasons cycle directly effects our mood and energy.

Southern Highlands Reserve, forest, mountain, garden

The concept of nature and gardens as therapeutic and restorative is ancient. The Chinese Taoists created gardens and greenhouses over two thousand years ago based on the belief that they were beneficial to health. In the late 17th century, the book, English Gardener, described spending time in one’s garden as a means to preserve health. The first garden club in America was created in Athens, GA in 1891 as a way to increase the health of its members. Today, there are niches within landscape architecture, horticulture and gardening specifically focused on therapeutic landscapes.

Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing [3], a term coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in the 1990s, is now part of the foundation of preventative health care, and this idea is spreading. Antimicrobial compounds from the essential oils of trees have been found to increase relaxation. Short, periodic visits to the living spaces created by canopies of trees have been found to have the same effects on wellness described above. As this time becomes more regular, the benefits have been found to include increased flow of energy, deeper intuition, an increase in the quality of relationships and overall increase in happiness.

In short, we’re getting back to our roots, so to speak, and living longer, richer lives, thanks to the trees and all they offer. The trunks and branches that we see above ground, as well as the subterranean, cooperative root systems together create a habitat for species visible and invisible to the human eye. Layer upon interconnected layer mingle within the ecosystem producing a physical environment full of sights, sounds, smells and a tangible essence that engages us at our core. All we have to do is be there.

[1] Source: Harvard Health Publishing 
[2] Source: Harvard Health Publishing
[3] Source: National Public Radio

Gregory Bald Azaleas: Hybridization at its Finest

Posted Posted in SHR-News

Every year in early June, visitors to Southern Highlands Reserve are rewarded with an especially vibrant range of color offered by our Gregory Bald Azalea collection. A magnificent display of reds, yellows, pinks and whites is a highlight to all who visit. Although SHR’s collection is a little more than a decade old, these gorgeous flowers have been many years in the making.

High on a grassy meadow in Great Smoky National Park near Cades Cove, bumblebees foraged for nectar for eons amongst the azaleas, unknowingly taking part in a cross-pollination experiment that would’ve captured the attention of Gregor Mendel. Thanks to the work of these nectar-feasting bees, the genetic material from four species of azalea, R. arborescens, R. viscosum, R. cumberlandense and R. calendulaceum, were cross-pollinated. The result – what we know today as the Gregory Bald Azalea – is magnificent.

The Gregory Bald Azalea has the finest characteristics of its parents, including an explosive, trumpeting shape, and brilliant hues. The flowers come in all kinds of colors and color combinations with color tones changing as the flower ages. Some specimens may flower in a warm color palette of reds, oranges and yellows with hints of salmon or magenta, yet others show off cooler tones of pinks, whites and light yellows. Some are also fragrant; they get this gene from the fragrant white arborescens species.

Gregory Bald Azaleas have a long history of getting people’s attention. In 1776, naturalist William Bartram first discovered flame azaleas which he boldly called “the most gay and brilliant flowing shrub yet known.” According to the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, curators at the British Museum of Natural History were so taken with them, that they are reported to have numerous samples of Gregory Balds in their collection. These brilliant azaleas made such an impression that the Gregory Bald national park was formed to ensure they would be protected and enjoyed by all who wished to visit them. In the book Hiking in the Smokies, secretary of the Smoky Mountains Conservation Association Carlos Campbell shared the history of two dignitaries visiting the Smokes in 1924 to scout a possible national park location. According to Campbell, well-known botanist Harlan P. Kesley “made the statement that the flame azalea, which incidentally, was one of his favorite shrubs, reached its maximum development anywhere in the country on and near Gregory Bald and said that was one of the highlights, one of the things that made this area worthy of being a National Park.” Today, Azalea enthusiasts travel from across the world to see them by hiking an 11-mile trail to Gregory Bald to witness their glory.

At Southern Highlands Reserve, visitors can enjoy the full spectrum these shrubs have to offer by strolling through the Azalea Walk, SHR’s collection of Gregory Bald Azaleas grown from seeds collected at Gregory Bald. The collection is planted in a “color vault” where the azaleas were planted near their neighbors whose blooms resemble their own, making for a stunning showcase of the breadth of colors combination of their spectrum of possible hues.

There are several upcoming opportunities to experience the beauty of the Gregory Bald Azalea – without enduring an 11-mile hike!

  • Schedule a Group Tour. Check out our calendar to see available dates during this peak season.
  • June 6th Visitors’ Day – SHR invites botanists, backyard gardeners and azalea enthusiasts to join us for the June 6th Visitors’ Day at SHR when they are in bloom.
  • May 19th Symposium – One of our featured speakers for our Symposium is Larry Mellichamp, Emeritus Professor of Botany and Horticulture at UNC-Charlotte and the Director of the UNC-Charlotte’s Botanical Gardens. Dr. Mellichamp will discuss “Secrets of the Floral Sex.” Please note that our symposium is currently sold out, but we do have a wait list.

We hope you join us in our appreciation for the joy and beauty these lovely shrubs bring to the SHR collection and to your gardens.


Learning from History: The Importance of Genetic Diversity

Posted Posted in SHR-News

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” ~ Mark Twain

The Irish Potato Famine has gone down in history as one of the worst tragedies of the 19th century. In 1845, a fungal infestation, Phytophtthor infestans, reduced half of the potato crop in a single year into an inedible slime. In a very Biblical, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat fashion, the blight lasted for another seven years, ruining over three-quarters of the crop[1]. By the time the so-called Great Hunger ended in 1852, approximately one million Irish citizens had died from starvation and another million became refugees.

While Phytophtthor infestans is technically to blame, the root cause (at least from a biological standpoint), is actually a lack of genetic diversity. To accommodate the rapidly growing population, Irish farmers vegetatively propagated (a form of asexual reproduction made from cuttings) the “lumper” variety of potato. Since all the potatoes were clones, they were all genetically identical to one another, and therefore equally susceptible to any changes in the environment. Had greater variety of potatoes been planted in Ireland, Darwinian theory tells us that more of the crops would have been able to resist the blight. This could have reduced both the devastating impact and the length of time it persisted. As it was, however, the majority of the potato crop was decimated, along with the population so dependent on it.

Nearly 200 years later, and we still haven’t learned the lessons history taught us. The appeal of genetically identical crops for “big agriculture” includes scale (farmers can grow an extremely large yield without the need for seed) and efficiency (farmers have the ability to harvest all the crops at the exact same time). A third stated reason, strength, is much more nebulous, as what is considered strong today can just as easily be wiped out with the slightest change to its environment – whether the introduction of a new pest, a change in climate, or some other environmental factor.

Two examples in the 20th century illustrate this point:

  • In 1970, the Southern corn leaf blight decimated almost 70% of the corn population in the U.S. While this did not have devastating costs to human life, it is considered a larger financial catastrophe than the Irish potato famine, costing more than $6.5 Billion in today’s dollars.
  • Ten years later, the emergence of a new race of the insect grape phyllorexa, forced California vineyards to replant almost 2 million acres[2].

One of Southern Highlands Reserve’s ongoing projects is repopulating the red spruce forests. These forests have been threatened due to impacts from human activities, non‐native insects, and other natural factors such as insects, isolation, and climate. Today, these high elevation forests are still considered the second-most endangered ecosystem in the U.S. Dozens of birds, mammals, insects, and amphibians are dependent on these forests for their survival and are also endangered or threatened.

To find out more about SHR’s red spruce program or to donate to the cause, click here.

[1] Source: History.com

[2] Source: University of Berkeley