JC Raulston Arboretum: A Living Laboratory & Outdoor Classroom


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.


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.


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


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.


“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.


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


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.


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.


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)


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)


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.


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


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)


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.


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)


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.

Meet Me at Yates Mill


If you had news to share or vegetables to sell, a sweetheart to romance or fish to catch, Yates Mill was the place for you in 19th-century Raleigh. [1]

Yates Mill was a thriving center of commerce—the hub where many roads met and where all the locals gathered. It’s now a National Register Historic Site and Wake County park. Dating back to the 18th century, (1756 to be exact), this fully restored, water-powered gristmill located at 4620 Lake Wheeler Road in Raleigh, provides a window into what early industry in the piedmont region of North Carolina looked like.


There were as many as 70 different mills operating at one time or another in Wake County. Yates Mill is the only mill in Wake County still standing, thanks to dedicated preservationists who have fully restored it to what it looked like in the mid-1800s. — Historic Yates Mill; Raleigh, NC


Not only is Yates Mill the only standing mill in Wake County, it is the only restored and operational automatic mill in North Carolina, and one of the few remaining in the country. Corn grinding is demonstrated on the third Saturday and Sunday of each month from March to November. Mill tours are available every Saturday and Sunday in March through November. — Historic Yates Mill; Raleigh, NC


Yates Mill used an automated milling system patented by Oliver Evans in 1790. This system reduced the amount of labor needed to run the mill and also improved the quality of the flour or meal. (Incidentally, George Washington also used the Evans system in his gristmill at Dogue Run Farm on his Mount Vernon estate.) — Historic Yates Mill; Raleigh, NC


Yates Mill Pond: In simplified terms, the pond provided water that filled the waterwheel, caused it to turn, and subsequently brought the machinery in the mill to life. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC


Cattails on Yates Mill Pond — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC


The milldam at Yates Mill flows out of Yates Mill Pond, creating a creek that passes under Lake Wheeler Road. — Yates Mill Historic Site; Raleigh, NC


Like many mills, Yates Mill had a blacksmith who kept equipment running and who also shoed customers’ horses. This reconstructed log building, just east of the mill (which is in the background at left), is a replica of the original blacksmith’s shop. (Raleigh, NC)


The logs of the blacksmith shop at Yates Mill were salvaged from a tobacco barn destined to be flooded by Jordan Lake. Students from the NC State School of Design reassembled the timbers here in the mid to late 1970s. (Raleigh, NC)

From 1898 until the mill’s closure in 1953, Yates Mill was operated by John D. Lea, Sr. His daughter, the late Mary Lea Simpkins, grew up at the mill and provided artifacts, photographs, and oral history that helped to shape and preserve a view of life at the mill. She recalls,

Farmers would come to the mill and bring corn on wagons or mules….Daddy would weigh it and grind it for them….Sometimes while he was grinding he’d sing hymns. He taught me songs.


An old wagon behind the Research and Education Center is a recalling of the days when famers brought their corn to the mill to be ground or brought their produce to be sold. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC


Historic Yates Mill exists to preserve Wake County’s agricultural heritage, as well as it’s environmental and historical resources. — Historic Yates Mill; Raleigh, NC

In addition to the mill, Historic Yates Mill County Park is also a 174-acre wildlife park, complete with trails, a research center and exhibit hall (called the A.E. Finley Center for Research and Education), an outdoor/field classroom, and an outdoor amphitheater.

I traveled the Millpond Trail, parts of the High Ridge Trail, as well as the Wetlands Boardwalk leading to the Creekside Trail. Much to my disappointment, (and perhaps a testament to the time of year or the intense heat of the early afternoon), I didn’t encounter much wildlife. I saw a yellow swallowtail butterfly, a mess of dragonflies, three turtles, two skinks, a male cardinal, and a dead snake (which, according to the trusty Snakes of North Carolina Online Identification System, was most likely a worm snake). The swallowtail wouldn’t sit still for a second, and the snake was just too morbid to photograph.


A yellowbelly slider suns among the lily pads on Yates Mill Pond. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC


Plants along the pond’s edge provide food and shelter for animals. They’re pretty to look at, too. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC


A common whitetail dragonfly on the water along the Wetlands Boardwalk leading to the Creekside Trail. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC


Beaver make their homes along the creek and wetlands of Yates Mill. Did you know that young beaver are called kits? …That’s just one of the many informative facts you’ll find along the trails and in the education center at Historic Yates Mill County Park. (Raleigh, NC)


Can you spot the skink (lizard) in this photograph? I spotted him in the brush along the Millpond Trail. — Historic Yates Mill; Raleigh NC


A five-lined skink near the outdoor amphitheater. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC


An open field adjacent to the amphitheater. — Historic Yates Mill County Park; Raleigh, NC

Yates Mill was a gathering place for commerce, companionship, and community in the 1800s. Today, if my recent visit was any indication, it is still a gathering place for the local community. Several families, immediate and extended, assembled for professional photographs near the cascading falls of the picturesque mill. A young girl, field notebook in hand and her mother close by her side, stopped to tell a passing peer about some plants that she had discovered on her excursion into nature. As I took my final picture (above), a father sat on the highest row of the outdoor amphitheater beside his young daughter, while her older sister performed an impromptu skit. Her talent was uninhibited. Their applause was enthusiastic. New memories were in the making at old Yates Mill.

[1] Quote on exhibit in the A.E. Finley Center for Research and Education


Lake Wheeler Park


If you’re looking for a place to go boating or fishing in the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, then look no further than Lake Wheeler Park.

One of the city of Raleigh’s beloved recreation destinations, Lake Wheeler Park is located south of downtown just past North Carolina State University’s agricultural field labs, and it’s easily accessible from I-40. The park consists of Lake Wheeler, several picnic shelters, a park office with concessions, a volleyball court, a fishing pond (called Simpkins Pond), a small playground, public restrooms, and an outdoor fitness circuit with exercise stations. (A nominal use fee is associated with several of these amenities.)


A sun deck, complete with lush foliage, overlooks the lake and is connected to the park office, concession stand, and restroom areas. — Lake Wheeler Park (Raleigh, NC)


The old-fashioned rocking chairs overlooking Lake Wheeler on the sun deck near the park office and concession area invite relaxation and leisure. — Lake Wheeler Park; Raleigh, NC


Fishing on Lake Wheeler is restricted to the two piers or from fishing boats. Boats can be rented from the park, or personal boats can be put in at the boat launching area by the park office. (Raleigh, NC)


Petal boats, jon boats, kajaks, rowboats, and Sunfish sailboats (like the one pictured here) can be rented by the hour (half hour for pedal boats) or by the day. — Lake Wheeler Park; Raleigh, NC


A graylag goose along the sandy shore of Lake Wheeler. — Lake Wheeler Park; Raleigh, NC


Fishing on foot is permitted along the shoreline of Simpkins Pond (pictured here). A fishing license is required for bank fishing. — Lake Wheeler Park; Raleigh, NC


Lake Wheeler Park is primarily a fishing, boating, and picnicking spot. While there are trails, they lead to the various “fishing holes” and piers—they don’t connect to one another or make a loop.

After visiting quite a few of Raleigh’s parks, (Nash SquarePullen ParkLake Lynn, Fred Fletcher Park, Mordecai Historic ParkLake Johnson, Durant Nature Preserve, and now Lake Wheeler), I’ve discovered that each one is unique and has its own special charms.

Durant Nature Preserve: A City of Raleigh Park

Durant_Park_Sign_LogIf you follow my blog with any regularity, you know that I’ve been trying to make my rounds of all the parks that the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, has to offer. I was off work for some appointments the other day and had a few hours to while away in between. Since I’ve only made modest progress toward my goal of exploring Raleigh’s parks, I decided that it was the perfect time to check another one off of my list: Durant Nature Preserve.

Getting to the park was a cinch–Interstate 540 is only minutes from the park, which is located on 8305 Camp Durant Road. The road itself starts out dirt and gravel, then turns into macadam. (Seems  a little backwards, I know.) Much like the other parks I’ve visited so far, I was delighted at how rural the setting seemed. After passing a subdivision, where Camp Durant Road turns from gravel to macadam, the only indication that I was near civilization was the distant noise of traffic along dual-laned Durant Road.

Durant Nature Preserve was the headquarters for the Occoneechee Council of the Boy Scouts until 1979, at which time the City of Raleigh purchased the 237 acres, formerly known as Camp Durant, and turned it into a park. The quiet, woodsy recreation spot was elevated from a mere “park” to a “preserve” in 2010.

Durant Nature Preserve offers fishing, picnicking, five miles of trails (plus access to the Abbott’s Creek connector of the Capital City Greenway), and educational opportunities that range from summer camps and year-round programs to self-guided, “sensory” tours of the gardens and trails.

My visit fell into the self-guided, “sensory” category and began at the preserve’s newest installation, the Sensory and Natural Play Garden. The name pretty much gives it away: this garden is ideal for the kiddos, but it’s also fun for all ages. Partly serious, partly silly, this area includes such features as native plants, ponds, a rock garden, and even a snail crossing.


A rustic bird feeder in the Sensory and Nature Garden at Durant Nature Preserve. (Raleigh, NC)


In the rock garden, a mushroom sprouts up among the art.

I didn’t see any wildlife–not even birds–in the Natural Garden, so I was delighted to spot a yellow-spotted millipede on the sidewalk as I made my way further into the park. I would later see three more millipedes while trekking through the woods.


A yellow-spotted millipede at Durant Nature Preserve in Raleigh, North Carolina.

A particularly informative area of the park is the Interpretive Tree Trail, which begins near the Park Office and winds its way toward (the Nancy Drew-esque) Secret Creek Trail. Plaques along the interpretive path identify native trees and provide interesting facts about them.


Sweet gum trees have fragrant, star-shaped leaves. The sap of these trees were used as chewing gum by Indians and early settlers. (Durant Nature Preserve; Raleigh, NC).


The yellow poplar is the tallest deciduous tree in the Southeast. The term deciduous means “falling off at maturity” and refers to trees that lose their leaves seasonally. (Durant Nature Preserve; Raleigh, NC)


White oaks like this one at Durant Nature Preserve (Raleigh, NC) can be 60 to 100 feet tall. Their sturdy, beautiful wood make them commercially useful.


The long, spreading branches of the American beech tree makes it attractive for shade. Wildlife eat the beechnuts that grow on these trees. (Durant Nature Preserve; Raleigh, NC)

Along the Secret Creek Trail, I saw different types of fungus and had several opportunities to stand out in the middle of the creek on rocks that extended from bank to bank.


Coral fungi along the Sweet Creek Trail at Durant Nature Preserve in Raleigh, NC.


A “sweet view” along the Sweet Creek Trail. There are several places like this one where rocks extend completely across the creek. — Durant Nature Preserve (Raleigh, NC)


I photographed this ebony jewelwing damselfly along the Secret Creek Trail. Unlike a dragonfly which spreads its wings at rest, a damselfly’s wings are folded above the body when at rest. Damselflies aren’t all “damsels” and dames. This one, in fact, is a male. Females usually have a lighter body and a white spot on their wings.


Maps throughout Durant Nature Preserve help park visitors to identify their location and plan their exploration. — Raleigh, NC (iPhone 4S)


Colored wooden circles, like the yellow circle on a tree along the Lakeside Trail (left), denote specific trails. Hiking symbols on trees (right) indicate that the trail is more rugged and ideal for proper hiking. Trail legends (bottom) on maps posted throughout the park provide the length and blaze colors of the various trails. — Durant Nature Preserve; Raleigh, NC


Fishing is encouraged on the two fishing docks at Durant Nature Preserve. Pictured here is the smaller dock by the boathouse. Fishing gear can be borrowed from the Park Office. –Durant Nature Preserve; Raleigh, NC


Along the Lakeside Trail, I spotted two lizards: this one, which I think is a ground skink, as well as a six-lined racerunner with yellow stripes.

Despite a full overnight charge, my camera battery died…just as nature came alive. Along the Lakeside Trail, I encountered several skittish turtles that quickly slipped into the water, a great blue heron that took off and glided across the lake, and a hawk. I veered onto the Border Trail and made the most of my iPhone’s camera.

I have to admit that the further into the park’s trail system that I ventured, the more unsure I was of my actual location–(and the more I wished I had applied some bug spray, which is another thing entirely). The blaze markers helped with my navigation a bit, but there were several times when I would reach a fork in the trail and had to make a decision. A simple map in hand would have probably made this easier….but what fun would that be!


The more rugged Border Trail at Durant Nature Preserve involves crossing a creek by way of rocks and a large concrete paver. — Raleigh, NC (iPhone 4s)

Shortly after crossing the creek, I found myself on a dirt road that appeared to be an access or service road. It was muddy going because of recent rainfall, but I soon made my way onto another wooded trail. It was here that I encountered a whole mess of deer. The deer are fawning this time of year, and sure enough I saw a mother watching over her little ones as they ate. Although it’s tempting to venture closer, a notice at the Park Office had advised that it’s best not to get too close to them so that the mother will not get spooked and abandon her babies.


A mother deer with her three fawns at Durant Nature Park in Raleigh, NC. (iPhone 4S)


Along the way, I encountered a “waterfall.” The yellow blur at about seven o’clock is a yellow swallowtail butterfly. — Durant Nature Preserve; Raleigh, NC. (iPhone 4S)


What’s a park or nature preserve without a turtle log? –Durant Nature Preserve; Raleigh, NC (iPhone 4S)

There was so much more to see and do–I had also planned to visit the park’s butterfly and bird garden–but I had gotten a bit too entrenched in the trail system and it was time to head back to civilization. In my estimation, Durant Nature Preserve is a great local destination for all ages. No doubt, each visit will be a slightly different experience but always an entertaining exploration of creation.