Native Plant Experts Speak at Southern Highlands Reserve’s Annual Symposium: “Balance and Function: The Role of Native Plants in our Ecosystems”

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On Saturday, May 14th, horticulturalists, gardeners, landscape designers and plant lovers gathered on Toxaway Mountain at Southern Highlands Reserve’s Native Plant Symposium to learn about gardening with plants that are native to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. This year’s theme “Balance and Function: The Role of Native Plants in our Ecosystems” showcased how native plants provide valuable services to our everyday lives. Through their collective experience spanning 75 years, native plant experts provided examples through field studies and best management practices on how we can use native plants in landscaping projects of any scale.

Keynote Speaker Larry Mellichamp, former Director Emeritus of the Botanical Gardens at UNC-Charlotte, shared his insights from a recent botanical study in Madagascar, comparing native plants of Madagascar’s island ecosystems to the rare native plants in hot spots of biodiversity in Western North Carolina. Guest Speakers Matt Sprouse and Amy Fahmy from Sitework Studios in Asheville shared numerous examples how to weave native plants into the design of any landscape, large or small. These case studies demonstrated using native plants in the landscape can be orchestrated to provide ecological benefit as well as aesthetic quality.

Based on the feedback from attendees, SHR’s founders and staff were pleased to see the Symposium exceeded expectations of our guests. “It was exciting to see how engaged the audience was in seeking practical ideas they could use in their gardens. The speakers had a positive influence in creating a broader vision of the interconnectivity of the natural world,” reflected founder Robert Balentine. SHR’s Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks commented, “I thought the content was inspiring and informative. The speakers were some of the best in the profession regionally and offered insight to attendees about two very different topics.” When asked about her overall impression about the Symposium, Kelly noted, “We accomplished our goals in educating about the use of native plants, and the overall impression was a grand slam by SHR to provide an outstanding education event for the public to attend.”

A special highlight of this year’s Symposium was the premiere showing of SHR’s Film entitled “Genus Loci: The Southern Highlands Reserve.” Featuring interviews with the Reserve’s founders Betty and Robert Balentine, landscape architect W. Gary Smith, and consultants, artisans, and key partners, the film the story of how the Reserve was created. As the film’s title implies, thoughtful design, reverence for nature and respect for the land in its natural state were the key guiding principles upheld by the Reserve’s design team.

As a result of watching the film, SHR founder Robert Balentine hopes “viewers will gain a sense of the majesty of God’s creation and the role man can play in creating a manipulated landscape to further evoke an emotional response to that creation.” The film is intended to give visitors not only an experience of the Reserve’s past, present, and future, but also foster a spiritual connection to nature.

Following the Symposium’s lectures and film showing, attendees enjoyed a picnic lunch in the gardens and then gathered for a Garden Tour led by SHR staff and its Founders. The Symposium Garden Tour is the only tour during the year where visitors get to hear the story of SHR from the founders as they reflect on their conservation efforts at the Reserve.