By Allen Lacy
It won’t take a first-time visitor to this website more than a nanosecond to notice that the name J. C. Raulston is extremely prominent here—whether referring to the extraordinary human being of that name or to the arboretum at North Carolina State University named in his memory shortly after his death in an automobile accident in 1996. The centrality of his name in much that pertains to the origins and purposes of the Linwood Arboretum is not at all peculiar.
The first name on the cornerstone—really a dedicatory metal plaque—of the Linwood Arboretum at Belhaven is that of J. C. Raulston. and properly so. A very high percentage of the trees and shrubs planted in this small municipal arboretum are associated with him in one way or another. Some, like the Korean Campsis grandiflora ‘Morning Calm’ and Styrax japonicus ‘Emerald Pagoda’, were plants that he collected in the wild and introduced into American horticulture. One, and perhaps his most desirable introduction, the handsome shrub now called Calycanthus x raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine’, was a bigeneric hybrid he had encouraged one of his students to create. Others were simply plants he thought unjustly neglected in American gardens and American nurseries, and therefore urged their serious consideration.
Raulston was a plant evangelist, or so I described him in an article in Horticulture magazine in 1985. His preaching on behalf of superior but neglected plants was carried on in many different media—through his classes in horticulture at North Carolina State University, through his writing for professional trade journals, through public speaking, and through letters to persons who like me were lucky to be one of his correspondents.
One of his pulpits was the newsletter he wrote for the newsletter of the Friends of the Arboretum. The newsletter made no claim to regular appearances; in fact, one of its most frequent features was some kind of apology for being late.
Lateness , however, didn’t manage in the least. Each issue was a treasure, not only for its valuable information, but also for its eccentric tidbits, such as a recipe for baked beans that he thought the best he had ever eaten.
But plants were always the center. Raulston signed his letters “Plan and plant for a better world,” and he lived by this maxim.
Raulston’s purpose was clear. Over and over, in every venue, he hammered home his conviction that 90% of home landscaping in America was dominated by 40 or fewer unimaginative, unworthy, and inferior plants—or plants of some merit that were simply used excessively. In his lectures to audiences of home gardeners he preached that we really ought to know better. but his primary audience was nurserymen and women. While he told amateur gardeners like me that we really ought to plant a witch hazel instead of a forsythia, a stewartia instead of a callery pear, he made available to the nursery trade plant after plant after plant that he thought would sell, once the public taste for such plants was whetted.
Raulston was a man of action, however, not just words. He used the propagation resources of his university to propagate hundreds of plants, which were passed out at summer short courses ge gave. Nurserymen were even invited to come to Raleigh and take cuttings, so they could propagate anything that caught their eye.
It isn’t at all difficult to establish both Raulston’s huge influence and the great loss that came with his untimely death. Simply browsing through a few nursery catalogs, both wholesale and retail, is sufficient evidence of his impact on American horticulture.
Raulston did not publish much, in the usual academic sense. In fact, there is some evidence that come of his university colleagues thought that for not having published monographs on obscure mosses or suchlike he did not deserve tenure. But he left behind one of the most valuable and fascinating horticultural literature I know, the newsletters that were in part collected in the 403-page, oversize paperback, Chronicles of the NCSU Arboretum (1993).
Don’t try to buy this book. You won’t find it except after a tedious search through catalogs of out of print books. . And if you get a copy you will discover that it is very fragile, so poorly bound that turning its pages often results in their falling to the floor. But you can read it, although before telling you how, I want to describe some of its contents. It is primarily a portrait of the mind of J.C. Raulston at moment after moment in his life, and it is as miscellaneous as his mind also was. (In some of the moments, his mind was liable to fix on corny jokes. Did you hear the one about the vicar who installed lights in his garden? He wanted to watch his phlox by night.)
For pure horticultural information about plants, the Chronicles are a treasure-trove. Raulston conducted a great many plant-giveaways, or two kinds. Members and other supporters of his arboretum were regularly offered their choices of two or three plants from a long list of offerings (which is how it happens that in my own garden some of my favorite plants are a dwarf elm called ‘Jacqueline Hillier,”and a Chinese pistachio). Nurserymen were offered small plants of trees and shrubs neglected in the industry and in home landscaping, in the hope that some would catch on publicly.
For both audiences, Raulston wrote delicious, seductive descriptions that today are a fine guide to some really fine plants. Here are just three samples, describing plants that we now grow in our arboretum.
Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Fastigata’ K. Koch (Cephalotaxaceae). Not a rare or new plant as it originated in a garden in Japan and was introduced to Europe in 1861 – and is fairly readily available from conifer specialists. It is not commonly seen in commercial production in N.C. though very well adapted to growth throughout the state. The plant in the NCSU Arobretum is 20-25 years old and is 7′ tall by the same width. As a young plant it is narrowly columnar with handsome black-green foliage. The plant stays dense and very attractive as it ages. It roots easily (slowly) in high percentages when taken from December through March and stuck under mist with #3 Hormodin (or an equivalent). We can provide large quantities of cuttings. Production of a one gallon plant would take two years from a good liner plant. Best in full sun or light shade. (Note – parent plant in the White Garden north of the visitor center by fence).
Lagerstroemia fauriei Koehne (Lythraceae). This species of crepe myrtle was collected on the southern Japanese island of Yakushima where it is a rare endemic plant by a National Arboretum/Longwood Gardens collecting team in the 1950’s for its increased cold hardiness, disease resistant foliage, and beautiful red flaking bark. Several of the original collection seedlings found their way to NCSU in the 60’s and now make superb 25′ specimens in the arboretum – possibly the largest plants of this species in the U.S. The cuttings being distributed come from the seedling plant now growing in the townhouse model garden. It has extremely dark red bark and we receive probably more questions from visitors admiring this plant than any other single plant in the arboretum each year. It should be completely hardy anywhere in N.C. Cuttings root with somewhat more difficulty than the common L. indica – but softwood cuttings should give 70%+ results with 6-8 weeks in a mist bed. (L. fauriei is notable for resprouting of plants from severed roots – so if available, root cuttings in winter would likely give very good results). Plants grow very rapidly with 2-4′ of growth per year and the red bark is visible in the third year from cuttings.
Poncirus trifoliata (L.) Raf. ‘Flying Dragon’ – “Flying Dragon Trifoliate Orange; Contorted Hardy Orange” (Rutaceae). A monotypic genera of a deciduous shrub/tree (to 20′) native to central and north China and introduced in 1850. The plant has year-round ornamental merit with bright green twigs and large spines in winter, white fragrant flowers in spring, dark shiny foliage in summer, and attractive yellow-orange fruit in autumn and winter. It is extremely stress tolerant and will grow in wet or dry, heavy or light soil in sun or light shade. This Japanese cultivar was selected for its twisting and curving branches (much like the widely grown “Harry Lauder’s Walkingstick Bush”) and curved spines which have great picturesque value in winter when the plant is defoliated. Relatively easy from semi-hardwood cuttings under mist in mid-summer (and it will come true from seed; a characteristic of most citrus with unusual apomictic seed production in the genus). Useful in USDA Zones 5-9. (Plants located in the contorted plant collection in the west arboretum; and in the east arboretum in the winter garden).
Occasionally in Raulston’s newsletters there is an elegaic note, a hint that he suspected his life might end without his having accomplished that aim of encouraging us all to plan and plant for a better country, for better landscapes, for better lives. I think there are many who wish that J. C. could come back for a day and see just what he has wrought. His arboretum in Raleigh flourishes now, and it is a Mecca for serious gardeners. Wholesale nurseries are now growing many fine plants that he promoted constantly.
Raulston was my friend, and I think he would love the Linwood Arboretum. He often complained that most arboretums preached to the already converted, and that arboretums were located in obscure places, often walled or hedged off from the rest of the world. An arboretum on a bicycle path uniting three towns, right across from a middle school, a block from a regional high school, with a water fountain for grownups, kids, and dogs? Raulston would love it, as even better than his scheme to plant witch hazels in front of fast food restaurants. And if he walked through our auditorium, I think he would say to himself. “Hmmm. Somebody stole a lot of my ideas for this place.” And he would smile. Linwood has planned–and is planting for a better world.
For gardeners, the internet is a key component of a better world, And one of its treasures, on the website of the J. C. Raulston Arboretum, is a complete copy of the Chronicles, plus several newsletters written between 1993 and 1996.
I give you some of the rest reading about plants and gardens that you will ever find.
By Allen Lacy
Click here to view the newsletters written by Raulston: numbers 1 through 22.