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 draws hikers, mountain bikers, and trail walkers thanks to 10 miles of wooded, hilly, dog-friendly trails. But garden lovers like myself find plenty to enjoy too in the Arboretum’s 65 acres of cultivated gardens — even if that visit occurs in early November after several hard freezes.

We visited on our last day in Asheville and found bright berries, textural grasses, copper hedges, golden trees, and camellias in bloom, plus one of the best bonsai exhibits I’ve seen.

Located within Pisgah National Forest, on land that was once part of Biltmore Estate, the Arboretum honors landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Biltmore’s gardens, with a bronze statue.

A pleached hedge in coppery fall color frames the small plaza where he stands.

At the edge of a pond, pitcher plants stood tall in throaty, speckled beauty. I really love these. Has anyone grown pitcher plants in a container in Central Texas? What’s required to keep them happy, I wonder? I mean, besides wet feet.

Stillness Meets Trajectorya heron sculpture by Annie Mariano, perches on a stacked-stone gabion plinth.

A Hedge Against Extinction by Martin Webster will always remind me of Asheville Fling back in 2012.

Camellias in fluffy, white flower against a backdrop of orangey red foliage

And disco balls hanging from tree branches!

bronze sculpture Oh Great Spirit by Nell Banister Scruggs stands amid tawny grasses on a walled terrace overlooking the mountains.

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

Others had gone to seed but still looked pretty backlit by the sun.


european beech

My favorite part of the Arboretum is the Bonsai Exhibition Garden. I’ve been intrigued by bonsai for years, though I’ve never acquired one or tried to make my own. The Arboretum’s striking display was stunning enough that I had a mad few moments of wondering what I’d been doing with my life, not to be working with bonsai. And then I considered where I live, and our extremely hot and droughty summers, and realized I’d be chained to a watering can. Nope. I’ll content myself with marveling over the bonsai creations of others.

Graveyard Fields

A fascinating article about an American apprentice to a Japanese bonsai master, “The Beautiful, Brutal World of Bonsai,” by Robert Moor, recently appeared in the New Yorker. “When you look at a traditional bonsai tree,” it says, “you can climb into it with your eyes and feel the peace of a late-summer afternoon, or the bright chill of a morning sea breeze.”

Climbing into it with your eyes — yes, that’s right. You experience these miniaturized trees as if you are miniaturized yourself, as if you could sit under one and reach up to caress its gnarled branches. That these trees naturally grow tall in a garden setting or in the wild makes the experience of viewing one all the more magical. How do they do it?

“The Wounded Rider” red maple

The secret to making a dwarfed tree that looks like a full-sized tree sculpted by wind and weather lies in starting with a seedling tree or woody plant, confining its roots in a shallow container, and carefully pruning its roots and foliage over the years as it grows. Oh and also wrapping its branches with copper wire to shape the tree to your vision.

Dwarf white pine

Bonsai is grown outdoors and often displayed so as to be viewed from one side, with a wall or screen behind it.

“Golden Heart” Tamarack

A pocked gray concrete wall at the Arboretum shows off the bonsai nicely, especially this golden tamarack.

bald cypress

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

Amur maple

I enjoyed seeing the bonsai collection in autumn, when leaves of deciduous trees were turning red or yellow and dropping onto carpets of moss.

Japanese white pine

Evergreen pines, gracefully twisted, are equally lovely though.

“Heart Full of Hollow” red maple

Some of the bonsai have titles, like works of art.

Blue Atlas cedar

Others don’t. But they are works of art too.

japanese maple

A Japanese maple bonsai at peak autumn color

“Mount Mitchell”

The real 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, wooly yarrow, and loosestrife — all miniaturized. It evokes the spirit of a place.

american hornbeam

American hornbeam bonsai

“40-Acre Rock”

“40-Acre Rock” displays a ‘Shimpaku’ juniper and boxwood in a depression atop a rounded, oblong boulder. This one isn’t easily moved!

Sedge accent plant

I wasn’t familiar with bonsai accent plants, but several appear in the Arboretum’s display, like this clay saucer cupping a single sedge with moss.

Sea oats accent plant

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

Seeing bonsai so beautifully displayed at the Arboretum was a highlight for me. A backdrop of golden leaves and mountain views made it even more special.

Up next: Hiking at dizzying Chimney Rock. For a look back at fall foliage and black bears along the Blue Ridge Parkway and in Great Smoky Mountains, click here.

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

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