Bewitching bonsai, art, and autumn gardens at North Carolina Arboretum

November 30, 2022

Located in Asheville on the doorstep of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with views of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, the North Carolina Arboretum attracts hikers, mountain bikers and trail walkers for 10 miles of wooded, hilly, dog-friendly trails. But garden lovers like myself find plenty to enjoy in the Arboretum’s 65 acres of cultivated gardens — even if that visit happens after a few hard freezes in early November.

We went to Asheville on our last day and found bright berries, textural grasses, copper hedges, gold trees and flowering camellias, and one of the best bonsai exhibits I’ve ever seen.

Located within the Pisgah National Forest, on land that was once part of the Biltmore Estate, the arboretum honors landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the Biltmore Gardens, including a bronze statue.

A pleached hedge the color of caper fruit frames the small plaza where he stands.

At the edge of a pond, pitcher plants stood in neck-tall, spotted beauty. I really like this. Has anyone grown potted pitcher plants in central Texas? What do they need to keep them happy, I wonder? I mean, apart from the wet feet.

Persistence fills the trajectoryA heron sculpture, by Annie Mariano, sits on a stacked-stone gabion plinth.

A hedge against extinction Will always remind me of the 2012 Asheville Fling by Martin Webster.

Camellias with fluffy, white flowers against a background of orange-red leaves

And the disco ball hanging on the tree!

Bronze statue Oh great soul Nell Bannister Scruggs stands in lush grass on a walled porch overlooking the mountains.

Late-flowering perennials were still in bloom, even in early November.

Others had gone to seed but still looked quite lit by the sun.


European Beach

My favorite part of the Arboretum is the bonsai display garden. I have been interested in bonsai for years, although I have never acquired one or attempted to make my own. The Arboretum’s striking display was stunning enough that I wondered for a few moments what I was doing with my life, not working with bonsai. And then I considered where I live, and our extremely hot and dry summers, and realized I’d be strapped to a water can. no I will satisfy myself by marveling at the bonsai creations of others.

“The Graveyard”

An interesting article about an American apprentice of a Japanese bonsai master, “The Beautiful, Brutal World of Bonsai,” by Robert Moore, was recently published. The New Yorker. “When you look at a traditional bonsai tree,” it says, “you can climb it with your eyes and feel the peace of a late summer afternoon, or the bright chill of the morning sea breeze.”

Climbing into it with your eyes – yes, that’s right. You feel these miniature trees as if you were miniature yourself, as if you could sit under one and caress its gnarled branches. These trees naturally grow tall in a garden environment or forest which makes a viewing experience more magical. How did they do it?

“Wounded Rider” Red Maple

The secret to creating a dwarf tree that looks like a full-sized tree sculpted by wind and weather lies in starting with a seedling or woody plant, enclosing its roots in a shallow container, and carefully pruning its roots and leaves over the years. It grows oh and wraps its branches with copper wire to shape the tree in your vision.

Dwarf white pine

Bonsai are grown outdoors and are often displayed so that they can be seen from one side, with a wall or screen behind them.

“Golden Heart” Tamarack

A gray concrete wall in the arboretum beautifully displays bonsai, especially this golden tamarack.

Bald cypress

A bald cypress bonsai magically evokes the grandeur of an old bald cypress in nature, complete with buttressed root flares.

Amur Maple

I enjoy collecting bonsai in autumn, when the leaves of the deciduous trees turn red or yellow and fall into a carpet of moss.

Japanese white pine

Evergreen pines, gracefully twisted, though equally lovely.

“Heart Full Hollow” Red Maple

Some bonsai have titles, like works of art.

Blue Atlas Cedar

Others do not. But they are also works of art.

Japanese maple

A Japanese maple bonsai in peak autumn colors

“Mount Mitchell”

The original Mount Mitchell, located in North Carolina, is the highest peak in the Appalachians. This bonsai “Mount Mitchell” consists of dwarf white spruce, rhododendron, red creeping thyme, woolly yarrow and loosestrife – all miniature. It evokes a sense of place.

American Hornbeam

American Hornbeam Bonsai

“40-Acre Rock”

“40-Acre Rock” displays a ‘Shimpaku’ juniper and boxwood in a depression atop a rounded, rectangular boulder. This one is not an easy move!

Sage accent plant

I wasn’t familiar with bonsai accent plants, but several appear in arboretum displays, such as this clay pot cupping a single sage with moss.

Sea oats are accent plants

Another has a narrow clump of inland sea oats underplanted with moss.

A highlight for me was seeing the bonsai so beautifully displayed at the arboretum. The backdrop of golden leaves and mountain scenery makes it even more special.

Next: Hiking the vertiginous Chimney Rock. For a look back at fall leaves and black bears on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains, click here.

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Learn about garden design from the experts here Garden Spark! I host private talks with inspiring designers, landscape architects, and writers several times a year in Austin. These are limited-attendance events that sell out quickly, so join the Garden Spark email list to be notified in advance. Just click on this link and ask to be added. You can find this year’s speaker lineup here.

All material © 2022 by Pam Penick for Excavation. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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