Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in April 2012.
The magnolia tree wouldn’t respond.
Joura had handpicked it — the native Fraser magnolia, the Magnolia fraseri, the magnificent magnolia with leaves sometimes growing to a foot, their pointed ends serving as a sort of lily pad for moths and butterflies. The tree’s blooms can span 10 inches, the pearly white flowers visible from dozens of yards away, fragrant enough to drown in the scent.
But this magnolia refused to become a bonsai tree.
Its leaves were too long. Its roots didn’t like man interfering with their natural growth. The tree wanted to keep growing. The magnolia didn’t want to be contained to a pot; it wanted to reach its natural height of 40 feet, grow its girth to three.
Joura, bonsai curator at the North Carolina Arboretum, gave up.
Nature would take its course.
From the time man has lived on Earth, he’s shared it with nature. Biblically, our relationship with plants started when Eve plucked the apple from the tree of life and took that fateful bite. Scientifically, our obsession began with chronicling vegetation in 1597. John Gerard described 2,850 plants in a six-inch-thick book. “Among the manifold creatures of God … none have provoked men’s studies more, or satisfied their desire so much as plants have done,” he wrote.
Somewhere along the way, we decided we should have a say in things. We should be able to contain flowers in pots, place the dogwood in that one position where the evening light hits it just so.
Sometimes it works.
Sometimes it doesn’t.
At the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville, the staff members are experts in maintaining that balance — they’ve got it down to a science. They know when to let things grow wild and free, and when to prune and perfect in such a way that shows the best side of that plant or tree. They use mathematics and the same software architects use to design plant spaces. Clara Curtis, the director for design and exhibit assets, knows it takes 3,456 violas or pansies to complete her quilt-garden design. Joura knows that exact time when he needs to prune back his Southern bonsai trees, so they keep their shape, so they don’t grow too big and wild and burst from their concrete enclosures.
While the people here know how to balance things, they also know their place. They know their plants have a purpose, what those plants bring to their lives.
Nature needs us. We need nature.
“The entire story of mankind has plants alongside it,” Curtis says. “The human race is completely intertwined with plants. I don’t think you can separate them or we would die.”
Curtis has honey-blond hair and warm, nut-brown eyes. When she speaks, she chooses her words carefully. She prefers brightly colored clothing, such as canary yellow sweaters and strawberry tops. Her hair is short, straight, never out of place.
The best professional compliment Curtis says she ever received was from a former boss. “You’re the most organized creative person I know,” he told her.
Sometimes when she works in her project room at home, she leaves a scrap of paper out, a book off the shelf. “Invariably, I’ll find myself tidying it up before I leave it,” she says. “It’s just my nature.”
When she designs her gardens, Curtis doesn’t try to be messy. It’s all about precision. The quilt garden is where she must be meticulous.
There are 24 blocks in the quilt garden. Each block represents a square in a quilt. Over the years, the blocks have been pieces of a log cabin, a flower basket, a double wedding ring.
Curtis designs the garden nearly a year in advance. She chooses a pattern, something to represent the mountains. She fills in the blank pattern, rotating and turning the blocks until they lock together in a kaleidoscope of colors. She never wants more than five divisions of space in each block — that can be too much. Too busy. In each space, she can use five kinds of plants. She uses petunias, dusty miller, angelon, pansies. Sometimes she takes a risk and introduces new flowers, but they can’t be in all the blocks; if something goes wrong, it could ruin the entire garden.
When Curtis chooses her plants, she plans what they’ll do, what kind of plants they’ll be. They’ll be good neighbors to other plants, not be too high maintenance, not need too much water, not be too tall. Not blur her color lines.
After she finishes designing, she meets with the gardeners and landscape supervisors. She needs them to grow her plants in specific pots — sometimes four-inch-deep pots, sometimes five-inch, sometimes in flats. She needs 3,456 plants each spring, maybe a few extra, for the 1,536-square-foot garden.
The plants change each season. She turns the blocks different ways, so the appearance changes all over again.
“It’s math,” she says. “Research, development, genetics.”
When you walk the grounds of the arboretum, you can see Curtis’s influence there. When the fog lifts in the morning in the heritage garden, you find yourself wrapped in a dewy emerald grove. You see the grapevines creeping up the wooden teaching shelter, teardrops of water sliding from the leaves of honeysuckle and marigolds, and you inhale the scent of rich humus soil and spring rain. Walk past the grove of American holly trees; touch their rubbery, spiky leaves; and enter the plants of promise garden where you see a tree with cinnamon-colored bark that peels in layers — a magnificent paperbark maple.
Curtis helped plan it all.
The plan for the arboretum began nearly two centuries ago. George Vanderbilt chose the nation’s renowned landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, to design the grounds for his Biltmore Estate. Olmsted grew famous after he created New York’s Central Park; he bragged that “every foot of the park’s surface, every tree and bush . . . has been fixed where it is with a purpose.”
But Asheville was no New York. In the late 1800s, the city was little more than a mountain retreat where wealthy people sought clean, mountain air. The population was less than 10,000, and logging companies had clear-cut much of the land.
Olmsted was a visionary. When he saw the ragged forests, he formed a plan. He wanted an arboretum, a “tree museum,” as he called it, where he could grow dozens of species of trees.
But he couldn’t convince Vanderbilt that an arboretum was right for his estate. Vanderbilt wanted a park. Olmsted wanted a museum. They settled on restoring the forests and setting aside some land for gardens.
Olmsted was in his 70s when he took on the project. He had a puffy, white beard, and his hairline disappeared to the back of his head. He was always an insomniac, but when his plans for the arboretum fell through, he slept even less. In the summer of 1895, his mind grew so weak, he wrote the same letter to Biltmore three times. In letter after letter, he wrote that Biltmore and his staff simply didn’t understand the importance of an arboretum. “I can’t think that you recognize how serious a matter the Biltmore crisis is,” he wrote.
He died in 1903 at age 81. Nearly 100 years later, plans for his arboretum finally took hold.
Arthur Joura hasn’t always been the bonsai man. Joura is tall and broad-shouldered, with salt-and-pepper hair that seems to stay in place even when the wind blows. He has intense blue eyes and speaks with a slight Northern accent but doesn’t like to talk about where it came from; he says he’s from “someplace else . . . a much bigger place.”
Joura started at the arboretum in 1990 as a nursery assistant. He operated a chain saw and a backhoe and a chipper. He cut his way through the mountains and helped make miles of trails.
Two years later, the family of a dying woman called the arboretum and asked if the staff would take her collection of bonsai trees. She was unable to care for them for months, so they sat in pots outside in her yard. They kept growing and growing and growing. No one came to prune them or shape them with wires. By the time the trees made their way to the arboretum, they were a pitiful sight.
The branches were scraggly and twisted and turned like a curvy, mountain road. Grass shot through the soil of the pots. A few of the limbs were gray and dying.
Some of the trees didn’t make it.
“This is what happens when you put a tree in a pot,” Joura thought. “These trees are miserable.”
The board put Joura in charge. It was his job to prune them back to life and give them shape again.
At first, Joura worked on the trees in his spare time. He learned to understand that bonsai is all about manipulation; once you cut back those branches and miniaturize a tree, it’s forever dependent on people. He selected new trees to bonsai based on their adaptability to containers and how they responded to pruning. For hours, he stood in the greenhouse, wrapping soft wires around the branches and hoping they’d take shape and stay where he wanted. He pruned the roots at the right point in the root cycle, not too aggressively, not too softly. He selected containers to complement the tree’s character — different colors, different shapes, for different trees.
Over time, he petitioned the executive director for more time to work on his collection. One day, the director told Joura he would have to help him explain why a traditional Japanese gardening technique had any place in an arboretum that was devoted to interpreting the southern Appalachian culture and experience.
Joura went home that night and wrote a three-page paper. He made two points to support his argument: He could use native trees, such as Carolina hemlock and American hornbeam, in the collection, and he could build tray landscapes that represented North Carolina landmarks. He could make an interpretation of Mount Mitchell and use a small, dead tree to showcase the lifeless trees on the summit; dwarf spruce to represent the Fraser firs; and creeping thyme to represent wild blackberries.
The director promoted Joura to full-time curator for the bonsai collection in 1998.
Now, Joura takes care of the plants. And in their own way, the plants take care of him.
“When you look at a bonsai, you’re looking at the result of a symbiotic relationship between a human being and a plant,” Joura says. “The only reason that plant looks that way is because of its interaction with that human. But the plant gives back. The human being gives the plant shape, definition, character. The plant in turn gives the human being experience, fulfillment, and in the end, character. You feed off of each other.”
In 1986, Olmsted got his wish. The state of North Carolina and the United States Forest Service struck an agreement. The state could use 426 acres of land in the Pisgah National Forest to build an arboretum. The General Assembly set aside $250,000 for the arboretum’s first year. The next year, workers planted the first tree on the property — a monarch birch — on Arbor Day.
By 1990, the staff grew to 24 employees, and workers erected and built the education center.
In 1998, a crowd gathered beside the education center, at the top of the winding, one-mile stretch of road. The director, standing next to Olmsted’s descendants, announced the dedication.
Nearly 100 years after Olmsted died, the board named its road after him.
The arboretum’s address: 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way.
When a tree like the magnolia, the Magnolia fraseri, refuses to respond to pruning and wire wrapping, Joura has two options.
He can let the tree die, or he can let the tree live.
He could watch the roots break through the ceramic pot and search for more soil. The limbs would gray. The leaves would fall off. The tree would resemble the first bonsai he saw at the arboretum, those miserable creations left to their own to survive.
Joura always gives a tree a chance.
When a tree won’t make it in the bonsai world, he carries it to an open pasture with plenty of sun. He digs a spot in the ground, takes the tree from its container, and places it in the earth. He packs the soil around the tree just so.
If the tree is strong enough, it will begin to grow. Its limbs will stretch out, and its roots will cement the tree’s place in the earth. It’ll look like an awkward teenager for a while; it’ll have no shape or canopy.
Eventually, it will grow up, toward the sun.
Wild. Free. Natural.
It’s on its own now.
Before the arboretum opened to the public, designers flooded the staff with plans for gardens. One of the master planners campaigned for a Japanese teahouse.Executive Director George Briggs took a look at the design for the teahouse. “This has no place in North Carolina’s arboretum,” Briggs said.
The arboretum is a place that showcases what is native to the southern Appalachian Mountains, what is native to North Carolina. Not what is native to Japan.
The teahouse was out.
Instead, the staff made plans for a garden that displayed plants, flowers and shrubs that the people of North Carolina have used for centuries. They named the area the heritage garden.
Today, Clara Curtis has transformed the heritage garden into a space that showcases the plants used for traditional crafts made in
North Carolina. There’s indigo for dye making, willow trees for basket weaving, bearded iris and paper mulberry for paper making.
Since its inception, the staff has redesigned the garden three times. The last makeover was in 2006. And in a few years, Curtis will pull up those plants and start from scratch again.
“It’s never done,” Curtis says. “You’re dealing with a living, growing plant, a living system. It’s always changing, just like our body is. We’re never done.”
The North Carolina Arboretum
100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way
Asheville, N.C. 28806