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  • Laurel Contributor

Southern Highlands Reserve

by Luke Osteen

A tour of the verdant gardens and trails of the The Southern Highlands Reserve is an unforgettable lesson about the region’s precious natural heritage.

The emerald green that carpets the summits and coves of this corner of Western North Carolina represents a series of unique botanical ecosystems. Many of these systems are under threat from development and human encroachment.

That’s why the Southern Highlands Reserve is so vital to the health of native plant and animal communities.

Located at the peak of Toxaway Mountain in Lake Toxaway, this native plant arboretum and research center is dedicated to sustaining the natural ecosystems of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At the core of its mission is a determination to preserve, cultivate, and display plants native to the region.

To accomplish this, the reserve has created approximately 20 acres of display gardens to demonstrate the beauty and complexity of these rare ecosystems. That’s in addition to the approximately 100 acres of natural woodland under conservation easement.

“At an elevation of 4500 feet, the varied topography and forest types found on our 120 acres allow us to emulate many of the plant communities found in the higher reaches of the Southern Appalachians,” says the Reserve’s Anna Norton. “The Reserve protects one of the largest known natural stands of Pinkshell Azaleas, hundreds of Hybrid Azaleas, and scores of native wildflowers.”

To enlist the public’s support for its vital work and sow the lessons that it’s cultivated, the Southern Highlands Reserves has opened its gardens and trails for guided tours (by reservation):

Azalea Walk - Blooming native azaleas called Gregory Balds are found in abundance along the azalea walk, planted in accordance to bloom color. Through a centuries-long process, the hybridization of these native azaleas produce blooms of deep scarlet red, brilliant oranges, yellows, even light pink.

The Chestnut Lodge invites nature right to its front door, incorporating native azaleas, rhododendrons and mosses into the design of the garden room known as the Chestnut Lodge Rooftop Terrace.

Every twist and turn of the Vaseyi Trail is a feast for the eyes, full of pillowy pink blooms perched atop craggy branches of the rare Rhododendron vaseyi. This is truly an enchanted spot – whether in spring when the azaleas are in bloom or in summer when the dark tunnel under the azaleas is enlivened with the white spires of galax in bloom.

Across from the Vaseyi Pond, visitors experience a breathtaking view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from our perch atop Toxaway Mountain, known as the Viewsite. From this north-facing terraced viewpoint, visitors can see Lake Toxaway and more than 16 distinct mountain peaks.

The Wildflower Labyrinth, located in the heart of the Core Park, is vibrant with color throughout every season, from the pale yellow and light blues of spring to the rich hues of bright gold and deep purple in summer. Based on a traditional seven-ring labyrinth, Gary Smith, the Reserve’s Landscape Architect, designed the plantings to emulate life’s journey. In places, the going is easy as low growing plants brush along your knees. In other spots, the going is more difficult as grasses and taller plants lean out into the walkway.

All visits to the Reserve are guided and require reservations.

However, everyone is welcome (no reservations required) to attend the Southern Highlands Reserve’s Plant Sale, set for August 23. It’s an opportunity to bring home a few of the native plants featured in the gardens of Southern Highlands Reserve. Most plants have been grown with care from hand-collected seed.

For more information about the Reserve and its mission, or to schedule a visit, call (828) 885-2050 or email info@southernhighlandsreserve.org.