JC Raulston Arboretum: A Living Laboratory & Outdoor Classroom

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A view from the top: looking down over the railing from the lovely rooftop garden. — Raleigh, NC

My mother has three daughters. (That’s a rather strange way of saying that I have two sisters.) My Mom would be the first to agree that each one of us is very different.

The Research Triangle region of North Carolina has three major public gardens: Duke Gardens (Duke University’s crown jewel), the North Carolina Botanical Garden (a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill treasure), and the JC Raulston Arboretum (NC State University’s gem). Two of these locales are listed among the 50 Most Amazing University Botanical Gardens and Arboretums in the U.S.[1]

I’ve visited and written about Duke Gardens many, many times, and I’ve shared photos of the NC Botanical Garden several times as well. Until recently, I had yet to visit the JC Raulston Arboretum.

The main goals of the 10-acre Arboretum are to provide a center for learning and a place to cultivate plants for southern landscapes. The grounds are divided into several themed gardens and borders. Memorial plaques and dedications can be found throughout. I particularly liked a memorial plaque I spotted by the Rose Garden:

“They loved the rose for its beauty and fragrance, a glimpse of God’s glory.”

Here’s a glimpse of the glory through the lens of my camera…and in the meandering order in which I encountered its beauty.

Scree/Xeric Garden
This area contains drought tolerant plants that are native to South Africa, Mexico, and the southern United States.

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Bees pollinate a cactus flower at the JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC).

Lath House
The architectural design of Lath House, comprised of iron supports, wooden beams overhead, tiled paths underfoot, and raised beds of plants, is award-winning.

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Lath House is home to over 700 plants that thrive in the shade. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

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The blooms on the Acanthus “Morning Candle” are burning out, but I thought the plant was pretty nonetheless. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

Plantsmen’s Woods
Trees from around the world can be found in Plantsmen’s Woods. An eastern redbud, with its golden-orange new growth, caught my eye.

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“The Rising Sun” gold-leaf eastern redbud. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

Color Trials
This colorful, full-sun space is an official All-America Selections testing site where new cultivars are evaluated for use in home gardens.

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“Supertunia Vista Silverberry” petunias grow profusely in the All-American Selections trial ground of the JC Raulston Arboretum. (North Carolina)

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A spotted skipper sits  atop “Meteor Shower” verbena in the Color Trials area of the Arboretum. (Raleigh NC)

Water Garden
This garden is part of a larger group of gardens called the Model Garden.

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I saw lots of Great Blue Skimmers around the lily pads in the Water Garden. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

A.E. Finley Rooftop Terrace
This garden is so unique (IMHO). Although the conditions of the rooftop garden are severe, plants that can tolerate heat, dryness and wind thrive in soil containing sand and slate.

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A.E. Finley Rooftop Terrace: The rocky mound straight ahead is a crevice garden. Looking over the railing is a view of a waterfall complete with aquatic plants, as well as the JC Raulston paver pictured at the top of this blog post. (Raleigh, NC)

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Winding brick walkways and this gigantic agave ovatifolia succulent are just two of the striking sights on the Rooftop at JC Raulston Arboretum. (Raleigh, NC)

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A Buckeye butterfly pollinates a Winkler’s gaillardia on the rooftop. …Keep doing what you’re doing, Buckeye! From my reading, this blanketflower is considered endangered by the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

Centers of Learning
The Arboretum offers both an Education Center, where programs and private events are held, as well as a Visitor Center.

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The Bobby G. Wilder Visitor Center contains a reading/resource area for the inquisitive. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

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Behind the coneflowers and near the Visitors Center, this Japanese Crepe Myrtle, “Fantasy,”  stands as one of the oldest and largest crepe myrtles growing outside of Japan. It’s a variant resulting from seedlings collected in the 1950s on the island of Yakushima. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

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Here’s another look at “Fantasy.” Across from it (not pictured) is a slightly smaller crepe myrtle. …Pictures are worth a thousand words, but seeing this big guy “live” and in full panorama is worth a million. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

Another historic notable at JC Raulston Arboretum is the 50-foot tall Columnar English Oak, which was the first tree planted there.

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On my way back to the parking lot, I “spotted” this Leopard Lily (or Blackberry Lily). Proper name: Belamcanda chinensis.  Why is it also called a Blackberry Lily? Because their seed pods look like blackberries. (Beware, they are not edible!)  — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

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This was one of my favorite scenes, and one of the last ones I photographed: The “Cecil Houdyshel” Crinum Lily, named after its cultivator, is an old southern heirloom. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

Following my afternoon at the JC Raulston Arboretum, I concluded that these three public spaces—beautiful though each one is—are very different from one another. Unlike my mother, who doesn’t have a favorite daughter, I do have a favorite public garden. Most likely, you can guess which one it is. But my personal preference aside, all three are lovely and I encourage you to visit one, or two, or all of them soon. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


Parking and admission to the JC Raulston Arboretum are free, but donations are accepted.
[1]  As awarded by Best Colleges Online.

An Independence Day Perspective

American_Flag-2 I turned the corner. Just over the rise, I would be home. It had been a busy week and I was tired. More than once, I had asked myself the question “What is this life?”

It was not a question asked in total despair, but rather in response to the subtle pressures both inward and outward to “make life count,” and “live with purpose.”

What is this life?

It was not a question for which I do not have a ready answer. Simply put, for the Christian, life is about loving God and loving and serving others (for God’s glory).[1] Not necessarily in a grand way, but rather in the milieu of life—in the everyday happenings and in a culture that seeks to exchange the truth for a lie.[2]

My street now in view, I spotted a man in the roadway waving his hands at passersby. As each car slowed but continued on, he waved vigorously at the next car.

Before long, I was the next car.

I eyed the situation with apprehension. The man was standing beside an SUV with a bag in his hand. A woman was turned sideways in the passenger seat.

Fearing that she or someone in the backseat needed medical attention, I pulled onto the right shoulder, turned my emergency flashers on, opened my car door and yelled, “What’s wrong?”

“I need a jump!” he called back.

This was perhaps the worst possible place to need a jump. It was a busy two-lane road in each direction, with a raised median in between.

A flurry of cars gave me time to collect myself. I needed to make a U-turn in the middle of the road and face oncoming traffic. Yikes.

The fellow seemed to read my mind. With an occasional backward glance at me in hope, he continued his appeal to oncoming traffic.

A break in the flow enabled me to do the seemingly impossible.

From the bag in his hand, the man extracted jumper cables (aha!) and ably affixed them to my battery and his. The first turn of his ignition produced a feeble whine. The second attempt sounded a bit more promising but was equally unfruitful. I revved my engine a couple of times—I seemed to recall my Father teaching me that—and the fellow tried again. The engine roared to life—a geyser of anti-freeze shooting up in celebration.

I pointed out this latest bit of bad news, which noticeably made the young man’s shoulders droop.

Life is hard. …Making that second U-turn in the middle of the road was fairly easy.

We live in a great country that was founded on religious freedoms and the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” At the same time, we live in a culture that increasingly calls evil good.[3] As a result, the interpretation of what constitutes “life, liberty and happiness” has become whatever anyone wants it to be—as opposed to the clear principles set forth in the Bible by the “Creator” mentioned in the opening lines of our nation’s Declaration of Independence.

A certain recent court decision may seem like our country has easily made a U-turn and is heading in the wrong direction entirely. As grievous as this is, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. People who do not know or acknowledge the triune God in whose hands our forefathers entrusted a young America will not seek to do what is truly good. Their idea of good will be based on personal preferences—what feels good and what seems right in their own eyes.

No doubt, U-turns in our culture—those seemingly progressive, open-minded and inclusive changes that make some people feel liberated and happy (but the eternal consequences of which are horrifying)—will get easier and easier to make. If this continues, the flow will begin to move steadily and fully in the opposite direction—becoming the new direction—leaving those of us who hold to a biblical worldview facing oncoming traffic.

Take heart, true Christian. Our job (purpose) is the same as it always was. Love God and serve others, so that the love of Christ, who died for the sins of the world, may be seen in us.[4] Shine bright in the midst of a culture that cannot do anything truly good or be truly free apart from the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.[5] Shine bright like the stars in the heavens, which were created and are superintended by Almighty God.[6]

Shine bright, like the stars on our American flag. American_Flag_NC-2


[1] Matthew 22:37-39; Galatians 5:13-14 [2] Romans 1:21-25 [3] Isaiah 5:20 [4] Matthew 5:14-16; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 [5] John 8:31-36Romans 8:2-11 [6] Psalm 8; Psalm 24 Suggested reading: the book of Ephesians; Romans 12

Sandy Creek: A City of Durham Park

With a forecast of 97 degrees on tap, I did what any sensible person would do—I headed for the great outdoors.

The thermometer was already (or only) registering 82 when I turned off of Pickett Road and onto Sandy Creek Drive. My destination: an abandoned wastewater treatment plant. (Perfectly sensible, right?) Rewind—or fast forward, to be exact. My destination: Sandy Creek Park.

A sign warned that there was “No Outlet” and I followed the road to the end. I found myself in a parking area facing the open expanse of a largely wooded and wild 103-acre park. I immediately liked what I saw.

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Sandy Creek Park in Durham, NC (Saturday, 6/13/15)

Sandy Creek Park was once a wastewater treatment facility, built by Duke University in the early 1900s to serve West Campus and the Hospital. Around 1928, the facility was turned over to the City of Durham. The City operated the plant until its closure in the 1970s. In the 1990s, many of the buildings were razed and a park rose out of the rubble.

Since then, several organizations have partnered with Durham Parks & Recreation to make Sandy Creek Park what it is today. Organizations such as New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee, Friends of Sandy Creek, Keep Durham Beautiful, and Alta Planning and Design of Durham. (Not to mention the park’s landscape designer, Kenneth Coulter.)

What is Sandy Creek Park like today? I’m glad you asked.

In a nutshell, Sandy Creek Park is a thriving wetlands and pine uplands habitat complete with a two-mile walking trail system, butterfly garden, picnic area, restrooms, a creek (for which the park is named), and two small lakes.

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The Sandy Creek Park trail system is a combination of natural and paved surfaces. Pictured here is a part of the Sandy Creek Greenway trail. –Durham, NC

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Here’s the start of the 0.4 mile unpaved nature trail around one of the wetland ponds. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

The park is recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as a certified wildlife habitat because it offers the four basics: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. It’s also a registered ebirding site, which means that one can report bird sitings or see the sitings of others at eBird.org.

I didn’t venture too far down the trails this first visit. Nevertheless, there were plenty of flowers and critters to capture by camera. Placards along the way apprise visitors of the various wildlife and plant life around them. I won’t duplicate those efforts here, but suffice it to say that the signs were informative and would add to the overall experience for those with heightened curiosities. Instead, I’ll highlight a few of my favorite things.

Friends of Sandy Creek Butterfly Garden
What a cute little garden this is—complete with all the right perennials to attract pollinators. I was partial to the coneflowers. (Translated: Be prepared to see a few coneflower pictures.)

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Coneflowers in the Butterfly Garden attract butterflies. (One fluttered away just as I snapped this picture.) A butterfly house adds both function and charm to the habitat. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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The Sandy Creek Butterfly Garden is a workplace for bees as well. –Durham, NC

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A butterfly (Duskywing?) on a coneflower in the Butterfly Garden at Sandy Creek Park. –Durham, NC

(Not-So) Out With the Old, In With the New
For some, it might seem kind of icky to tromp around a place where wastewater was processed. Personally, I found remnants of the treatment plant—two water tanks and a Pump House—important reminders of the past that added to the park’s charm.

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Vestiges of the bygone water treatment facility (“Vacuator” tank far left; Pump House on right) stand alongside new park features such as this inviting arbor swing. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

Native Flora
Throughout the park, native wildflowers spring up deliberately as well as naturally. With scenery along the trails dominated by green leaves and shrubs, it was a pleasant surprise to encounter reds and yellows popping up here and there.

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Bee Balm plants, attractors of butterflies and bees, grow tall in front of the old treatment plant’s “Digester.” (Bee Balm is also in the nearby Butterfly Garden.)  –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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Just past the creek, along the Sandy Creek Trail, I spotted these Black-Eyed Susans. Sure, Black-Eyed Susans are a commonplace wildflower, but did you know that there are several different varieties? For example, these Susans—with their big cylindrical eyes and dipping petals—are different than the ones in my own garden. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham NC

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Red Honeysuckle Alert! Nector-rich vines such as this one growing on the arbor swing beckon to the hummingbirds. Trumpet Creepers, which I also spotted along Sandy Creek, attract such local birds as the Ruby-throated hummingbird.  –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

Sandy Creek Wildlife
As I made my way toward the Sandy Creek Bridge, I came upon an older lady out for her morning walk.

“See that gray-looking tree over there?” She pointed beyond the wetlands toward the upland pines a good quarter of a mile away.

I nodded expectantly.

“It’s a big herons’ nest.” She stated this with the matter-of-fact confidence of a park veteran.

My untrained eyes saw nothing.

Having done her duty to nature and her fellow man, she left me to my neck craning. Fearing that I was missing out on something spectacular, I did the only thing I could think of: I zoomed in as far as my camera would go and snapped away. Once home, here’s what I saw:

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Great Blue Herons nesting in the pines at Sandy Creek Park. I count EIGHT! — Durham, NC

Next time, I’ll know where to look! …And you will too, should you visit the park. Also, it might be useful to carry along a pair of binoculars.

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A black Swallowtail in the brush by one of the lakes. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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At least three types of turtles make their homes on the waters of Sandy Creek Park. In one of the small lakes, I spotted four Yellow-bellied Sliders. (There were several other turtle logs, too!) — Durham, NC

Despite living in Durham for ten years, I didn’t know this park existed until recently when web searches for local birds repeatedly referred me to Sandy Creek. The number of birds sited at the park is astounding! And now that I’m out of my shell—play on previous picture intended—I hope to return and photograph some of them.


The City of Durham has more than 60 public parks. I’ve visited and written about three of them. The other two include Leigh Farm Park and Orchard Park.

Duke Pond: Pretty on Purpose

Duke_Pond_Entrance_SignDuke Pond, one of Duke University’s most recent sustainable projects, isn’t just a pond with a purpose, it’s pretty as a picture, too.

The 5.5-acre pond, which is hemmed in by Towerview Drive, Erwin Road, and Circuit Drive on the west campus of Duke University in Durham, NC, will reclaim campus rainwater and runoff in order to save an estimated 100 million gallons of potable water a year. Duke’s Chilled Water Plant, adjacent to the reclamation area, will use this water to cool the buildings on campus.

Yesterday evening, I paid the first of what I hope will be many more visits to the pond. The space was better than I had anticipated—and I had anticipated great things!

The pond sits on 15 acres, with nearly a mile of walking trails around it. A stairway (with railing) along Circuit Drive serves as the main entrance to the pond. There are smaller entry points (paths) off Towerview Drive and the Circuit Drive parking lot as well.

The walking trails form a figure eight of sorts and are made of either a wood-chip surface or packed gravel. Portions of the trail are slightly hilly, but the course is designed so that one could walk a fairly flat loop around a section of the pond, if desired.

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Already, Duke Pond is proving to be a great place to jog, walk, or simply sit and enjoy the general splendor. The hilliest part of the larger trail “system” can be seen at about 3 o’clock in this picture, along the wood-chip path. Visible in the foreground of this photo is the mostly flat, pressed gravel walking loop around part of the pond. (There is a slight incline on the left side of this loop.) Along this route, a foot bridge over the water enables a close-up view of several types of aquatic plants. — Durham, NC

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On Duke Pond, aquatic plants, such as these water lily pads, are thriving…and promising to bloom very soon. — Durham, NC

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These Pickerelweeds provide just the right amount of pop along the the edge of the Duke Pond. —- Durham, NC

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There’s a subtle quality about the wildflowers around the Pond. Upon closer inspection, they are simply beautiful displays of creation. Pictured here: Plains Coreopsis, also known as Golden Tickseed — Duke Pond; Durham, NC

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A pollinator is busy at work on a Stokes aster, which have been planted in clumps along the path. Duke Pond; Durham, NC. — Durham, NC

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In total, some 41,000 native plants have been installed around Duke Pond, creating a wetlands community that graduates into upland piedmont plantings along the periphery. Pictured here is what I think to be a Sweetbay/Swamp Magnolia. — Durham, NC

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At least two Canada Geese have found their way to Duke Pond. During my visit, they were quite active, squawking and flying across the water’s surface several times. — Durham, NC

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There are essentially four places where the Pond can be viewed fairly close-up, with one of them being this rustically pleasing “dock.” It was just before this point that I heard the rum-rum of a bullfrog! On the pond, I spotted a duck. — Durham, NC

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Geese, ducks, and bullfrogs aren’t the only wild things occupying Duke Pond. High up in the pines, I spied a very vocal hawk. (Can you see it in this photo?)

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Upon closer inspection—I put my 20X zoom to work!—it appeared to be a red-tailed hawk. — Duke Pond, Durham, NC

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It’s easy to forget Duke Pond is a reclamation site, but there are subtle evidences here and there—such as the stone structure in the far right corner of this photo. When I passed by it, I heard the sound of rushing water. — Durham, NC

I couldn’t be more pleased with how Duke Pond has turned out. I hope it provides the environmental benefits it was designed to achieve, and I look forward to seeing how the natural landscape grows and changes.Duke_Pond_Wildflower


Duke Pond is open from 8 A.M. until dusk. I encourage you to experience it in person, if possible!