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Spring at the NC Arboretum

NC Arboretum in Asheville

Spring came early in western North Carolina before winter, in its final throes of the season, took back control. The blossoms of spring were unsure about timing, but at the North Carolina Arboretum, you can find beauty in any season.

This spring finds many activities designed to get you out of the house and back into nature! The grounds are replete with hiking and biking trails, gardens, exhibits at the Education Center and the Baker Exhibit Center and Greenhouse (as well as in the gardens themselves), and a myriad of events for all ages.

The NC Arboretum was established in 1986 and is an affiliate campus of the University of North Carolina. The 434-acre public garden is located just south of Asheville inside the Pisgah National Forest, one of the most beautiful natural settings in America. With its forested coves and meandering creeks, its beauty speaks to our very soul.

The NC Arboretum includes 60 acres of cultivated gardens and more than 10 miles of groomed hiking and biking trails. Events bring the outdoors inside and change throughout the year. Spring is an exciting time at the Arboretum, with its seasonal landscape garden exhibits that run from April through October.

It’s also a particularly beautiful time of year with the amazing colors of springtime in the ever-changing variety of spring flowers and the budding new leaves. The Arboretum continues to provide innovative educational activities and events and spring is one of the busiest seasons.

“We are excited about the new garden offerings and exhibits coming to the Arboretum this spring,” said George Briggs, the NC Arboretum’s executive director. “In nature, new growth often leads to new opportunities for plants and animals. With these additions, we hope we can continue to grow our mission of connecting people with plants, and provide more opportunities to educate our visitors, members and students.”

On April 29 and 30, the Arboretum is hosting its 58th Annual Rhododendron & Azalea Flower Show. Presented by the Southeast Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, this judged event features hundreds of Rhododendron and Azalea blooms. The show runs from 12 noon until 5 PM each day, with a guided trail walk on both days beginning at 1 PM. The walk takes you along Bent Creek to the Azalea Garden to view the Arboretum’s National Native Azalea Collection. With the early spring weather, the Azalea’s may have bloomed early, but there still should be blossoms and color at the end of April.

Running through July 9, #themountainsarecalling is an exhibit by local photographer Camilla Calnan. Camilla focuses on the diversity and uniqueness of WNC ecosystems. Her images, located in the Education Center, capture the beauty and creativity found in nature.

A wonderful outing for the kids is the Rocky Cove Railroad Exhibit. Running through October on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 – 4 PM, this G-Scale (garden scale) model train demonstrates the coming of trains to western North Carolina at the turn of the 20th century.

The exhibit is located below the Grand Promenade, but please note that it does not operate in rainy or wet conditions. Naturally, environmental issues are a concern and this season the Arboretum is focusing on butterflies in its continuing effort to raise awareness for pollinators.

Its seasonal garden exhibits feature many plants and flowers that attract and support butterflies, and its signature Quilt Garden is designed in a butterfly quilt block pattern. The Forest Meadow garden has added several new butterfly-focused plantings and includes interpretive signage about butterflies and other pollinators.

Beginning May 13 and continuing throughout the summer, you can see the “miracle of metamorphosis” in the Baker Exhibit Center Greenhouse. Winged Wonders is a new indoor butterfly experience that will feature a butterfly nursery and walk-through butterfly house where a variety of local species, including monarchs and swallowtails fly free.

Coinciding with this exhibit, a new metal sculpture entitled “Life of the Monarch” will be unveiled in the Forest Meadow. Created by Waynesville NC artist, Grace Cathey, the sculpture is a colorful, upright kaleidoscope design featuring the different stages of the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.

The 7th annual World Bonsai Day also kicks off on May 13 at 10 AM. This internationally celebrated event is dedicated to furthering bonsai awareness and appreciation world-wide. A full collection of bonsai will be on display and the Arboretum’s curator will provide a guided tour of the garden.

NC Arboretum Spring in Asheville

May 13 is a busy day at the Arboretum, as it also celebrates the spring season with its Nature Play Day. Starting at 10 AM, this event is designed to get kids outside where they can explore and enjoy a wide variety of activities such as building fairy houses and gnome homes.

Opening May 27 and running through September 4, a Spirit of Place will be on display inside the Baker Exhibit Center. This exhibit features the artwork of painter and papermaker Elizabeth Ellison. Ms Ellison utilizes both traditional and oriental techniques, and often employs American Indian motifs, to depict the varied wildflowers, animals, human inhabitants and landscapes of the Smokies region and beyond.

She frequently gathers and processes native Appalachian plants to make the handmade papers she incorporates into her paintings. Ms Ellison has exhibited and sold her work throughout the US for more than 30 years. The Elizabeth Ellison Gallery is located in Bryson City NC. A native of Milton NC, Ms Ellison is of Occaneechi Indian descent.

In addition to the exhibits and events, many people come to hike or bike the trails, which are designed for all ages and ability levels. Trail options include easy, moderate and difficult levels and are dog-friendly. From the many trails within the Arboretum, hikers have access to other areas such as Lake Powhatan, the Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Visitors can also take advantage of the Guided Forest Trail Walks, which take place on Tuesdays and Saturdays beginning at 1 PM at the Baker Exhibit Center. Trained volunteer guides lead small groups along woodland trails, identifying plants and trees and discussing wildflowers, natural history, and the cultural and land use history of the NC Arboretum.

These walks are held rain or shine and last between 1.5 to 2.5 hours and are approximately one to two miles in length. (Pre-registration is required for groups of five or more and is highly recommended for others.)

The term Arboretum was coined by landscape gardener and writer John Loudon in 1833, but the establishment of botanically significant collections dates back to the Egyptian Pharaohs. Intended for scientific study, one of the main aims of Arboretums is to conserve native and indigenous trees.

The NC Arboretum is part of the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, a system of 80 Experimental Forests and Ranges that are administered by the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. The system provides opportunities for long-term science and management studies, which supplies a wealth of data and knowledge of environmental changes in both natural and managed forest and rangeland ecosystems throughout the US.

As part of the Experimental Forest system, the NC Arboretum supports ecosystem research and helps the Forest Service and other entities meet current and future conservation challenges through the synthesis of data. Over the years, many major discoveries have resulted from the research collected from Experimental Forests and Ranges. For example, based on long-term precipitation chemistry data at a New Hampshire Experimental Forest, scientists were able to recognize the effects of acid rain on vegetation. And, in the Pacific Northwest, research helped set the stage for conservation planning for the northern spotted owl.

Nearly a century before the NC Arboretum was founded, Frederick Law Olmsted, considered the father of American landscape architecture, was in the process of designing the grounds and gardens for George Vanderbilt II’s country estate. During that time, Mr Olmsted envisioned a research arboretum as part of his legacy and plan for the Biltmore Estate, which was the first professionally managed forest in the US. This spring, the NC Arboretum has been busy adding garden enhancements and a variety of facility upgrades.

In addition to newly renovated restroom facilities in the Education Center, visitors will find a new front gate system installed to help provide faster access for visitors and member cardholders. To adhere to its commitment to the environment, nearly all indoor lighting fixtures now use LED bulbs, which use 80% less energy than conventional lights, and a majority of the outdoor lighting has been converted as well. The Arboretum is also adding six more call boxes along the trails to help bikers and hikers communicate directly with campus police should a problem or need arise.

The NC Arboretum does not charge a per person admission fee, only a parking fee. To sustain the upgrades and create opportunities for future enhancements and jobs, the Arboretum has increased its basic per vehicle parking fee by $2. Parking rates for personal vehicles are now $14. The Arboretum offers a half-price parking special the first Tuesday of every month for personal vehicles. Access into the property is free for pedestrians, bikers and members of the NC Arboretum Society.

The Arboretum is open to the public with spring and summer (April through October) hours from 8 AM – 9 PM, with the entrance gate closing at 8 PM. The Bonsai Exhibition Garden is open from 9 AM – 5 PM daily.

For more information on the Arboretum, visit

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