New garden celebrates the overlooked Piedmont

The land is too changed to ever change.

The observation refers to singer/songwriter Josh Ritter’s native Idaho, but it reflects a widespread perception of the N.C. Piedmont. Some people believe we’ve plowed and paved our way into ecological oblivion. I’ve even heard a prominent conservationist question whether the Piedmont is a viable eco-region. When people assume there’s nothing special in the Piedmont – nothing left worth saving – our region gets overlooked in terms of conservation.

For many years, a visitor to the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill could stroll through the tranquil, shady Mountain Habitat display garden featuring spring ephemerals, rhododendrons, azaleas and ferns, and then emerge into the sunny Coastal Plain and Sandhills Habitat display garden, where tiny controlled burns are employed to please the longleaf pines and other species native to those regions. Anyone remotely familiar with our state’s geography might be confused by the abrupt transition. What happened to the Piedmont?  I highly respect the garden’s work on behalf of native plants across our state, but I was always a little disappointed we didn’t rate a garden of our own. I worried that it played into the notion that our landscape no longer supports natural communities of any interest..

I’m thrilled to report this is no longer the case.  The botanical garden now boasts a Piedmont Habitat display garden. The first order of business in establishing this garden was – wait for it – tearing up pavement!  When the botanical garden’s new Education Center was built, access to the garden was rerouted, and a short extension of Laurel Hill Road was closed.  This former road corridor offered a sunny location to highlight plants that characterize our region.

The garden is organized into four different beds. The shady woodland area features a chalk maple and shrubs like American snowbell and rusty blackhaw viburnum. The herbaceous layer is quiet now, but in the spring bloodroot, green and gold, and foam flower will bloom among the evergreen Christmas ferns. Across the way, a long, curving bed is devoted to plants commonly seen along our roadsides. It’s especially colorful this time of year with the purple, yellow and white of ironweed, sunflowers and wild quinine. Blooms will continue well into fall.  One end is dominated by native grasses and shrubs such as witch hazel, buckeye, sumac, sparkleberry and New Jersey tea.

There’s another irony to this garden. Even though roads have destroyed natural communities across the Piedmont, they’ve also helped preserve scraps of native habitat.  Piedmont prairies have been lost to fire suppression and forest succession, but remnants hang on where land is kept mowed along power lines and roadsides.

In between these beds, there’s a section anchored by a large diabase rock. This volcanic rock is hard and dense, and it resists erosion.  When covered by a thin layer of clay, it creates a Piedmont barren, a natural community inhospitable to trees, something unusual in our region.  Many rare plants appear in this bed – smooth coneflower, Georgia aster and prairie goldenrod, which, despite its name, is actually white. 

The last bed was planted over the winter and now in its first growing season. Habitat Gardens curator Chris Liloia jokingly calls it the “Pampered Piedmont Garden.”  It provides space for delicate plants that didn’t fit well into any of the other beds.  Several were collected in the Uwharries, including the dainty Sandhill St. Johnswort and the leather-flower. The latter, a purple bell-shaped clematis, now rambles over a tractor’s dented grill. Nearby, rusty tractor discs look as if they’re running through a patch of muhly grass. These antique farm implements add a whimsical bit of structure to a garden in its early stages. Placing them in a bed of native plants might prompt us to consider how agriculture has shaped our landscape in the Piedmont.  An optimistic contrarian, I like to think they represent the machinery that sometimes needs to be employed to create a garden of our own and restore our natural areas.

Thanks to Laura Cotterman and Chris Liloia for taking time to give me a tour of the new Piedmont Habitat display garden. For more information, visit www.ncbg.unc.edu and check for updates on the “Around the Garden” blog.