Gardens, Trails, LEGOs and Impact

The North Carolina Arboretum’s connection to UNC might not be apparent to most citizens of the Old North State, but it is a vital component of our education, outreach, and economic development efforts. For 30 years, as an affiliate of the UNC system, the Arboretum has successfully cultivated connections between people and plants.

Since I love numbers, let’s talk about the impact of those connections. This beautifully-landscaped 434-acre public garden has more than 17,000 members, and each year nearly 27,000 children visit through school trips, nature programs, and discovery camps. The educational programs continue to grow and include more than 150 Adult Education courses and a 240-hour Blue Ridge Naturalist Program certificate. In addition, the Asheville and Southern Appalachian communities regularly use the 10-plus miles of hiking trails located on land within the Pisgah National Forest. The Arboretum is also home to one of the largest bonsai collections in the southeast with more than 100 bonsai specimens.

More than connecting nature and people, staff are working with research partners to collect and catalog native plant species in their Germplasm Repository. This project conserves and studies local plants and has secured more than 25 research grants worth more than $3.5 million.

As you can see, the Arboretum has wide impact. In the words of the director, George Briggs, “In just three decades, The North Carolina Arboretum has transitioned from solely a plant-based cultural enterprise to one of place-based economic development and education.”

I was fortunate to see a fascinating exhibit in the gardens called Nature Connects®, Art with LEGO® Bricks. The 14 sculptures are inspired by nature and built from more than 370,000 bricks included a giant praying mantis, butterfly, and hummingbird. The creatures created by Sean Kenney, a nationally renowned, award-winning artist, were on display through October.

Earlier this year, The North Carolina Arboretum unveiled the first standing sculpture of Frederick Law Olmsted. Not only is he considered the father of American landscape architecture, but he also envisioned a research arboretum as part of his legacy in working with George Vanderbilt down the road at Asheville’s Biltmore House. In tribute, Olmsted’s larger-than-life-size bronze figure surveys the gardens from its position in the center of the Arboretum’s Blue Ridge Court.

I’ve marked my calendar for a trip to see the Winter Lights display open November 18 through January 1. With more than 50,000 tickets sold over the past two years, this display is a highlight of the season for tourists and North Carolinians alike.

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