It was a pleasant 66 degrees when I arrived last Saturday morning at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was my first visit to the public garden, which is operated by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a “conservation garden” that promotes the education and appreciation of plants native to the state. (Admission to the Garden is free, although donations are accepted.)
Within the Garden itself are several distinct, smaller gardens and natural areas where native plants of the various regions of North Carolina are displayed. The Education Center’s greeter provided me with a detailed map and suggested the best way to view the Gardens. This, of course, would have been useful information for anyone with a sense of direction. I, however, am not one of those people. I had barely made it through the back door of the Gift Shop in route to the herb garden, which the greeter recommended as my first stop, before I was lost. Nevertheless, my wandering walk was relaxed and enjoyable as here and there I read facts on garden plaques and even overheard snippets of conversation from a guided tour.
My turn about the grounds found me first in the Piedmont Habitat Garden, which is a sunny spot where pieces of old farm equipment rest among the perennials as a nod to the agricultural history of the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
I ventured deeper into the Garden and snapped the following photo. (Moments later, and to my relief, the child’s father had her in tow once again.) The scene strikes me as very old-timey. Or perhaps timeless.
I soon stumbled upon the aforementioned herb garden, then inspected the aquatic plants in the Native Water Gardens. The latter was being lorded over by a sour-faced gray and white cat who, I am sorry to say, was not very photogenic and therefore did not make the cut for this blog post. On I went until I reached the Garden of Flowering Plant Families, which serves as the meeting place of botany and bold sculptures by North Carolina artists.
In the Coastal Plain Habitat, I heard plops and gurgles from the otherwise still waters. Despite these curious sounds, I didn’t encounter any frogs, toads, or the resident non-poisonous water snakes known to bask in the sun there.
My favorite spot was the Mountain Habitat Garden, where plants and trees indigenous to the mountainous areas of the southern Appalachians create rich, dense shade. Nestled in this cozy cove with the likes of Mountain Sweet-pepperbush, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and Mountain Doghobble is the cabin of playwright Paul Green. Green often incorporated “botanical knowledge and herbal folk wisdom of North Carolina’s native peoples and settlers” in his plays. It was in this cabin, which was restored and moved to the North Carolina Botanical Garden in 1991, that Green conducted much of his research on native herbs. 
Could I have only taken one photo all morning, I would have chosen the following one. When I saw this Magnolia tree and its red fruit, there seemed to be something usual about it. Sure enough, as I was taking this picture, a small tour group approached and the guide announced that this particular Magnolia tree—the Bigleaf Magnolia—is rare and endangered.
I love Magnolias, but I must admit that I have never been a fan of towering, tufted Pines. Of course, it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind as the saying goes. In truth, the Longleaf Pine never looked finer to me than it did in the North Carolina Botanical Garden that morning, and I left the Sandhills Habitat repentant that I had ever referred to them as spindly trees. Indeed, they are tall and strong and played an integral part in the settlement of North Carolina by Europeans in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The sap of these “Tarheel Treasures” was valuable in making products such as tar, paint and varnish, while the durable wood was useful for bridge girders as well as railroad ties and ship masts.
For the bird enthusiast, the Garden offers a rustic bird-watching shelter complete with informative charts illustrating the various birds that frequent the grounds. From a crude wooden bench, I had a “bird’s eye view” of Nuthatches, Yellow Finches, Common Starlings, a Mourning Dove, and even a Red-bellied Woodpecker.
It’s amazing what a few hours can do—or rather, what one can do and learn in just a few hours!