Tranquility. Harmony. Peace. Those who visit the gardens of the Southern Highlands Reserve describe a sense of peace and tranquility that are rarely found in the rest of the world. Here, the patient pace of nature slows our feet, the wind gently whispers in the trees, and memories of the mountains are heard in the ripples in the pond, like echoes from a distant time long forgotten. We develop a relationship with nature in these moments, pausing to feel the duality of permanence and of change. Many experience a reverence and sense of awe as we behold the magnificence of the land.
Observing their own experience here among the treetops, the Balentines created the Reserve to first and foremost to protect the land from future residential and commercial development, signing the land into the North American Land Trust and preserving it in perpetuity. Upon recognizing the land would provide a unique educational opportunity, the gardens were established to serve as an arboretum of native plants, showcasing the rare ecology of high elevation Southern Appalachian forests. Finally, and most importantly, the answer to “how” the gardens would be developed: to uphold and be in accordance with the spirit of the land. Each garden room is designed to bring us back to our connection to nature. Visit our Gardens and return to a sense of peace as you watch the forest grow.
Blooming native azaleas called Gregory Balds are found in abundance along the azalea walk, planted in accordance to bloom color. Through a centuries-long process, the hybridization of these native azaleas produce blooms of deep scarlet red, brilliant oranges, yellows, even light pink.
The Chestnut Lodge invites nature right to its front door, incorporating native azaleas, rhododendrons and mosses into the design of the garden room known as the Chestnut Lodge Green Roof.
A gnarled Freemanii Maple marks the entrance to the Reserve, defiantly proclaiming its unlikely existence on the mountaintop. The freemanii maple is the product of a red maple and a silver maple, yet the closest silver maple is found many counties away and several hundred feet lower in elevation.
The Maple Entrance leads visitors into the vestibule of the Core Park, the Woodland Glade. From this flower-covered path, you can follow the stone steps to access other areas of the Core Park like the Wildflower Labyrinth and the Azalea Walk or stroll down the path to the Vaseyi Pond and Viewsite.
Every twist and turn of the Vaseyi Trail is a feast for the eyes, full of pillowy pink blooms perched atop craggy branches of the rare Rhododendron vaseyi. This is truly an enchanted spot – whether in spring when the azaleas are in bloom or in summer when the dark tunnel under the azaleas is enlivened with the white spires of Galax in bloom.
The Wildflower Labyrinth, located in the heart of the Core Park, is vibrant with color throughout every season, from the pale yellow and light blues of spring to the rich hues of bright gold and deep purple in summer. Based on a traditional seven-ring labyrinth, Gary Smith, our Landscape Architect, designed the plantings to emulate life’s journey. In places, the going is easy as low growing plants brush along your knees. In other spots, the going is more difficult as grasses and taller plants lean out into the walkway.
Majestically cascading down the Blue Ridge Escarpment, our waterfall and spray cliff communities are home to many rare botanical treasures. The light spray from waterfalls in these communities invites an array of moisture-loving plants such as liverworts and mosses. Plants are often found tucked away in shallow soil in crevices between rocks. As a nationally significant Natural Heritage Area, these fragile microclimates must be vigilantly preserved.
Across from the Vaseyi Pond, visitors will experience a breathtaking view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from our perch atop Toxaway Mountain, known as the Viewsite. From this north-facing terraced viewpoint, visitors can see Lake Toxaway and more than 16 distinct mountain peaks.