The Transylvania Times -

By Park Baker
Special To The Times 

Southern Highlands Reserve: Another Jewel – Lake Toxaway NC


Last updated 9/9/2013 at 9:34am

The Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway can be seen from “view site” at the Southern Highlands Reserve. (Courtesy photos)

A walk in the wildflower labyrinth at the Southern Highlands Reserve might make you feel like you have taken a step back in time. At the center of the 20-acre core park at the top of Toxaway Mountain, the stone path circles through head high Black Eyed Susans, Echinacea and Rudbeckia and ends at a stone bench with the words, “I lift up mine eyes unto these hills” etched into it.

The labyrinth was designed by landscape designer Gary Smith. Its traditional seven rings are supposed to emulate the phases of life, as some parts of the labyrinth are easy to pass through, while in some spots the wildflowers grow so large they bend in, and the path becomes quite difficult.

When you step out of the wildflower labyrinth, you might find the Program Director Kelly Holdbrooks beaming at you. Passion for her work is evident in the huge smile on her face, and in every plant and project she describes as the tour leads on.

While the Reserve is a private, nonprofit research center and native plant arboretum, it also hosts tours on the first Tuesday of every month from April through October, and it is quite a treat.

Taking about two hours, the tour starts at the Maple Entrance where trails branch out under the canopy of trees. One path will lead you through the Wild Azalea gardens, which have been planted according to color and bloom in succession from white to red. Another leads to the labyrinth, and yet another wraps through dense woods along a spring and fills the Vaseyi pond. The pond itself is on the edge of the view site, looking northwest, with a great view of Devils Courthouse.

Robert and Betty Balentine are the visionaries of this gem, as the site was originally slated for 22 homes and is now a conservation easement. The couple, originally from Atlanta, were fortunate enough to be able to combat a condition they felt their children had, “Nature Deficit Disorder” as Balentine puts it.

“We didn’t feel they had an understanding of nature that we thought they should have,” Balentine said.

More importantly, the Reserve was created to help preserve, cultivate, and display plants native to the area and to advocate their value through education, restoration and research.

Sometimes known as a “land trust,” an easement is an opportunity to work with the federal government to protect lands through conservation. They can be tailored to fit the wishes of the land owner as long as the principles of conservation are met.

“Land conservation is all about protecting habitat, not just plants...but animals, too, so you need contiguous land,” said Holdbrooks. “The mountain sits on the continental divide, which puts us in a rare microclimate.”

The adjacent Panthertown Valley is well known for having a unique flora and fauna, including many species only found in high country bogs. Beyond that is the Nantahala National Forest.

At the Reserve’s center, a highly manicured 20-acre garden is pruned, raked and tended to almost daily by a staff of five.

The director herself is out in the gardens, too. Office work is part of the job, but everyone gets their hands dirty. Her staff is mostly handpicked, with each member bringing something different but no less ardent in their work.

They all wear many hats and must be flexible enough to get all the jobs done.

Each work day, the staff usually has lunch together in the Chestnut Lodge, a sight in itself. More than 18,000 board feet of wormy chestnut were used to build the lodge, which holds the staff offices, a living quarter, educational center and library.

Before the tree was devastated by the chestnut blight, it is estimated to have covered a quarter of the Appalachian range and was a primary building material for early homes as far west as the Mississippi River. Building the lodge with reclaimed wood from barns and old homes is a nod to the past, while giving it a rustic look.

Books, art, frontier tools and Native American artifacts decorate the rooms throughout the lodge. Most of them were donated to Balentine, when the project began by people who lent their time, advice and appreciation for what he was doing.

The history of Southern Appalachia was important in the design of the whole place, and Balentine knew that and has many local artists’ work on displays throughout the property.

Above the research center, and serving as the patio for the Chestnut Lodge, is the rooftop garden, which has benches, shade and is landscaped with plants from the Reserve itself.

While many “green roofs” are simply planted with grass and shrubs only a few inches deep, the rooftop garden at the Reserve holds soil that is 8 to 10 inches deep and serves as a buffer to make the footprint of the Chestnut Lodge visually disappear.

The education center is where you might find Taylor Ladd if she’s not out in the gardens. Her position as director of research and education is to facilitate and put to work volunteer groups, organize school trips to the grounds and, of course, do research.

Recently, she had an art class from Rosman High at the Reserve looking for aquatic invertebrates. Students sculpted replicas of the animals they found, and they are now on display in the education center.

The WLEE department at Brevard College is planning on offering practicum courses at the Reserve to learn best management practices, and Western Carolina University has offered a class in management prototyping where students did GIS mapping of the arboretum’s hemlock population.

The University of Georgia offers two classes in Native American studies titled “Plants of the Cherokee” that have visited the Reserve.

Holdbrooks and Ladd were classmates at the University of Georgia, where they both earned master’s degrees in landscape architecture.

Ladd has a skill set in research and that’s important for their work, as everything has been grown from seed. Ladd spends about 30 to 35 hours a week in the gardens, and the rest of the time in the office doing outreach and research.

She works closely with Sue Owen, the greenhouse manager.

Owen spends much of her time gathering seeds throughout the Reserve and cleaning them. A tedious task, she uses a gooseneck magnifying glass to get to the seed, and then it must be catalogued. Every seed she collects is given a session record, from its start to the time it goes in the ground.

The greenhouses Owen oversees are filled mostly with species that can be found along the Blue Ridge Parkway, as this is what can be found throughout the Reserve, but there are hundreds of baby Red Spruce.

The Reserve has played a key role in the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative.

Their climate, location, and dedication to conservation have made them invaluable to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and The Nature Conservancy. SASRI was developed to help restore the habitat of the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel, of which there are only nine known populations.

This species of squirrel will only live among the Spruce-Fir trees at high elevation, which happen to be the second most endangered ecosystem in the United States.

The partnering with The Nature Conservancy is a cause for celebration amongst the staff at the Reserve.

It’s a pretty big deal that could lead to more funding for them, providing more opportunities to share their research through symposiums, and drawing more attention to their hard work.

Homage to the indigenous people of Western North Carolina is displayed throughout the Reserve. Cherokee artist Joel Queen has carved a depiction of how the Native Americans first acquired fire in an enormous piece of soapstone that serves as a decorative fire pit on the rooftop garden.

Inside the Chestnut Lodge, tools and weapons are carved from rock. Through the front door, a bronze inset piece in the floor has the leaves of five trees most important to the livelihood of Native Americans: the Sassafras, Yellow Root, Paw Paw, Bloodroot and Ginseng. They are all arranged around it and symbolize a reverence for the land not as prevalent today.

Being in a temperate rainforest, water control is a big deal.

Hired as a gardener, and for his experience with the National Park Service in water mitigation out West, Brevard resident Mike Somich spends as much time designing and maintaining drains as he does gardening.

He helps with the planting and trimming, and walks the grounds checking on drains and making sure they are functioning properly.

Throughout the gardens his handiwork controls the water flow and adds an aesthetic as each drain is lined with smooth river rock to help blend in.

One of Somich’s favorite parts of his job is “getting to work with a great group of people and learning with and from them.”

“Getting to work in such a gorgeous environment is pretty nice, too,” he said.

Obviously, one of the key things to an arboretum’s success is to make everything look nice. That’s where Eric Kimbrel comes in.

His job as the horticulturalist is to make everything aesthetically pleasing and to keep the plants healthy. Kimbrel likes to try and take a preemptive approach to his work rather than reacting to issues as they come up. He spends most of his time planning around the weather.

“If it’s snowing, I go around and make sure the plants aren’t being crushed, and jump on damage control,” said Kimbrel.

With a bachelor of science degree in horticulture and landscape design from the University of Tennessee, Kimbrel has been in the field for 20 years, and he takes great care of his work.

“What we have here is a living museum,” he said. “We have to think of each plant as living artwork.”

So much so, that in the downtime in winter, he and the staff spend time researching and further developing their programs.

“We are working on computerizing our pesticide programs and learning about diseases or invasive species,” he said. For example, he said, galls on the azalea are a big nuisance and harm the plants.

“It’s a fungus. It kind of looks like a wart,” he said. “Moles are a big problem up here, too, and we use lots of deer repellant.”

Some of the more unique plants Kimbrel is responsible for keeping healthy are a native sedge. Another is the Minnie Bush. “It only grows in the shade,” he said. “You can’t buy it anywhere. The flowers look like candy corn.”

While the wooly adelgid isn’t as bad this year, Kimbrel spends some time doctoring the hemlocks on the property. Most of them are located in the 100 acre natural woodlands area outside of the core park. This area of the Reserve is left as natural as possible.

For Kimbrel, this is his dream job.

The Reserve is open for tours on the first Tuesday of the month from April through October.

“It’s a great position,” he said. “It’s what I went to school for. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this all my life. With all I’ve learned is it’s important that the public gain a better knowledge of native species...I used to (as a landscaper) just plant whatever people wanted, but people need to think about the food chain and how it effects the circle of life.”

The research being done at the Southern Highlands Reserve is showcased through symposiums, where guest speakers in related fields come and speak. On Sept. 21, Dr. James Porter from the University of Georgia will discuss climate change and its impact on fragile ecosystems.

For tours, volunteering and outreach programs and symposium reservations, contact [email protected] Visit to learn more about The Reserve and the people who make it happen.


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