The history of JC Raulston Arboretum


The English oak is considered to be the first tree planted in the arboretum. | Photo courtesy of JC Raulston Arboretum

The JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State brings the world to Raleigh + shares Raleigh with the world.

Its founder, plant-man and educator JC Raulston, was tasked by the university in the mid 1970s to help grow the nursery industry in NC. “He looked around and said, ‘There’s no room to grow if everybody’s growing the same thing,’” said Mark Weathington, the arboretum’s director. “So he set out to diversify the American landscape.”

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Planting a red lace-leaf Japanese maple | Photo courtesy of JC Raulston Arboretum

In 1976, JC established the arboretum, which would later be dedicated to him. He transformed eight acres into a “trial garden,” planting trees and shrubs to see how they would grow. Based on their success, he distributed plants around the world to wherever they would flourish best, sending plants and seeds to his colleagues. “He was the conduit that got the right plants to the right people,” Mark said. “He really changed horticulture in the US.”

JC is still recognized for his impact today. In 2018, Horticulture Magazine included him on their list of the world’s 25 greatest gardeners, ranked among Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Lawrence.

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The tree JC called “Fantasy.” | Photo by JC Raulston Arboretum

The arboretum has grown to 10.5 acres with more than 8,000 different types of plants + continues to share seeds around the world. The arboretum is currently focusing on plants that solve problems, like researching rain gardens to see how they can remove heavy metals and pollutants from water. “As our cities are getting bigger and bigger, bringing living things into cities and creating intentional spaces for plants is important,” Mark said.

Although the landscapes of the arboretum have evolved over time, visitors can still see some of the plants that JC helped grow. One of the oldest plants in the arboretum is a crepe myrtle tree — it arrived to NC State from Japan ~20 years before JC did. Captivated by its upright, unique form, JC called the tree “Fantasy.”

The first plant JC reportedly planted in the arboretum was the narrow fastigiate English oak, a tree gifted to him when he moved from Texas A&M to State. The tree was recently removed because it was weak + in poor health. However, its tree ring remains in its original spot near Beryl Road.

Don’t miss the new and native redbud tree — it has dark burgundy, yellow, and apricot-colored leaves + its small lavender and pink flowers are blooming now. Nicknamed “flame thrower” + “eternal flame,” it won plant of the year at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

On April 30, the arboretum will host Raulston Blooms. During this garden festival for all ages, you can see many of these exceptional and unusual plants for yourself.

The arboretum is free to visit, seven days a week. 🌳

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