Interview With Bobby Ward Shares Insight Into Life of J. C. Raulston – Getting Dirty in Your Garden Extension Master Gardener Radio Show and Podcast

— Written By Lisa Sanderson
ViviLnk

Bobby Ward at J.C. Raulston Exhibit at D.H. Hill Library – Photo by Harold Johnson, CC-BY

Bobby Ward, author of Chlorophyll in his Veins, J. C. Raulston Horticultural Ambassador, shares his insight into the life of J. C. Raulston. The exhibit, “Plan and Plant for a Better World” will be at D.H. Hill Library until January 8, 2017.

 

Transcript

JOHNSON

This is Getting Dirty in Your Garden brought to you by NC State Extension Master Gardener Volunteers. I’m your host, Harold Johnson, and I’m a Master Gardener in Durham County.

Wait, before you remove that perennial from the container ask yourself, “Who was responsible for introducing this plant to the nursery trade?” After you listen to my interview with Bobby Ward, PhD in plant physiology from North Carolina State University, you’ll likely guess J. C. Raulston is the person ultimately behind the introduction.

During a five year period Bobby Ward gathered information about J. C. Raulston from both written sources as well as countless interviews. Armed with an extensive body of information, Bobby gives a comprehensive picture of JC in his book, Chlorophyll In His Veins, J. C. Raulston Horticultural Ambassador.

Let’s begin our interview with Bobby Ward—learn a little bit about the book that you wrote, Chlorophyll In His Veins; J. C. Raulston, Horticultural Ambassador. What prompted you to write that?

WARD

Well, I had known J. C. for a number of years, but I was not a student of J.C.’s. I was working on another book in the early 2000’s—a little book on modern-day plant hunters. And I discovered the fact that many people knew him, as I was interviewing them and they asked me about J.C. Who is this fellow, J.C. Raulston, who would send me plants in the middle of the night or drop plants off on the doorstep, or tell me about a nursery I didn’t know existed? And at the same time, Horticulture Magazine was celebrating his 100th anniversary and they commissioned a painting of whom they considered to be the most significant gardeners of the past 300 years or so and J.C. Raulston was included. It got me to wondering, “Who is this fellow that I thought that I really knew but I really didn’t know?” It got me on a quest to find out who J.C. was and to document his life and his impact on American horticulture.

JOHNSON

I would judge that that was time-consuming effort for several years.

WARD

Yeah, it took me about 5 years. I was finishing up the other book. I worked on it in bits and pieces and began contacting people that I knew were friends of J.C. or were professional contacts of his. It took me, really, 5 years to do it. At that time, the idea of self-publishing was becoming important, and I sent the manuscript or draft manuscript to two or three publishers—significant publishers—I won’t name who they are. The three wrote back to me and pretty much said the same thing, which is, “But J.C. is of regional importance only. He really isn’t important to the nation as a whole.” Well, that insulted me and I was determined to defy that, and so I decided to self-publish the book and market it, which I did. It has gotten reviews in many, many magazines, and newspapers, including magazines in the United Kingdom as well.

JOHNSON

I remember reading that you estimated you may have contacted 400 people in order to gather enough information.

WARD

That’s possible. I knew a lot of people, but they introduced me to other people and then also, I had access to J.C.’s archives. His executor allowed me use of his papers and materials and in that I was able to add even more people that I didn’t know to contact and get firsthand information about J.C.

JOHNSON

Even since then, some of his papers are now available via North Carolina State University.

WARD

Yeah, that’s right. After J.C. died and his estate was settled, his executor, who was a professor at North Carolina State University, allowed me access to the papers during the time that I worked on the book. Then, when I finished the book, they were turned over to D. H. Hill Library at NC State University to their collection and they are now archived there as well.

JOHNSON

There is a public exhibit.

WARD

There is currently a public exhibit going at the D.H. Hill Library. It began in March and will run until January 2017. It consists of a dozen or so display cases of history of J.C.’s life and his impact on American horticulture.

JOHNSON

Let’s talk about J.C. I think there are several aspects of him as a person, as a teacher/mentor, as a plantsman. Let’s take as a person, a little bit of “who he was”.

WARD

Well, he was born in Oklahoma. He attended Oklahoma State University. He did graduate work in the University of Maryland. He worked in Florida. He worked in Texas before coming to North Carolina in 1975. He loved teaching. He had a passion for it, he was very good at it; he won numerous teaching awards. His students loved him. While he was at North Carolina and in Texas as a teacher, he loved taking students to visit nurseries and gardens and museums and really became a mentor, a very strong mentor for them, helping them learn, even offering, at times, financial support to students from families who couldn’t really support their son or daughter in college. He was a complex person to some extent. He was shy to an individual; if you would talk to him personally, as you and I are doing right now, he was often times shy. He would host a party, for example, at his home, and would often times leave before the party ended and tell someone else to turn out the lights. Yet in a large room of 400 people, he would be absolutely personable. He would love to tell stories about plants. He would come into a room or an auditorium with two or three carousels under his arm and would proceed to lecture uninterrupted for an hour and a half, as if it were being written in Encyclopedia Britannica or some other great work of art or literature because he was so good at it. He was a superb plantsman. He loved plants. He had a knack for identifying plants that might grow in a certain area. He might not always have been a superb plantsman, himself, but he knew someone who could grow the plant and could propagate it and pass it along to someone else to introduce and grow it. He was a very warm person. People liked him. He would host Christmas parties at his house every year for students. When foreign speakers would come to North Carolina and speak at the arboretum, he would host them and invite friends and students to come by and seat at their feet and talk to these world-renowned personalities. He was a very loving person, I think. I went to his 50th birthday party at his house, again, at a time when really I did not personally know J.C. that well, and I was shocked and surprised at the outpouring of emotion that came about at his 50th birthday party when people would give him a card or some necktie or something that was useless, and yet he would hold it up as a work of art or something very elegant and thank them for it in a very profound and a very profuse way.

JOHNSON

A significant achievement in his life is the arboretum at North Carolina State University. Not an easy task to accomplish, I understand?

WARD

No, it’s probably his lasting legacy, to be sure, although his students are a part of his legacy as well. But the arboretum was initiated in 1976, shortly after he came to North Carolina. His idea was to develop an arboretum, a public garden that would display landscape plants, because at the time, there was no real landscape display garden anywhere between Washington D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia. His idea was to develop a public garden that would be an outreach for the nursery industry as well as the gardening public. It would also be an arboretum for research to determine what new plants might be able to grow in North Carolina that had not been tried before. It would also be an arboretum for teaching, for students who can’t get it. The North Carolina State University is a teaching university, so the idea was to have a public place that would display plants so students could learn about plants. The arboretum had its problems in the early days because some of his colleagues at North Carolina State University felt that there were other public gardens already in the area, and therefore we don’t need another one. He pointed out that the one in Chapel Hill and that the one in Durham really don’t display landscape plants and that was a unique aspect of the North Carolina State University arboretum that he had in his mind to be developed. It started in 1976. It was dedicated in 1980 with the chancellor of the university, and some of the other people in the department of agriculture here in North Carolina and the university; they all attended. So this year is really the 40th Anniversary of the founding of the arboretum.

JOHNSON

It was interesting to me that he came to North Carolina State in 1975, but by one year later there was an arboretum on the drawing board.

WARD

It was already on the drawing board because a committee had been formed by the department head to look at ways to improve the department of horticultural science to bring it up to national standards. It was good in some aspects, but it was not good in ornamental horticulture. So, with that in mind, the department head created the task force, putting J.C., wisely perhaps, on the committee to figure out what we can do and what he decided to do with other committee members, was to develop one of the research sites in west Raleigh, in method, that now holds the arboretum—a site that was probably being under-utilized at the time—under-utilized by the other department professors—and the idea would be to put this landscape arboretum there, install the plants, which he did, with student help and volunteers. The rest is history.

JOHNSON

He’s credited with making the recognition that maybe only forty plants comprise 90% of the plants sold in nurseries and used in landscapes.

WARD

That’s right! He traveled around the United States to all horticultural growing regions and he made the observation that there’s not a lot of diversity in the landscape. His observations of about 40 plants comprise 90% of the landscapes is a true observation. He wrote about it several times. He knew that there were other plants available that could help diversify the landscape because he had seen this in his travels to other countries, to Japan, and China and Europe and around the United States. He knew that other plants could be put into the landscape and help to diversify our gardening experience. When he came here, what he found in North Carolina was that the fact that the nurseries were growing similar plants. No matter where he traveled he would see some of the same landscape plants such as dogwoods and roses and red tip photinia, hollies and things like that. But he knew that there were other comparable plants that would suitably grow in the landscape that would help diversify it.

JOHNSON

I was struck by the fact that he took time to have evening classes for nursery owners.

WARD

He did!

They could learn more about what he was doing and they didn’t have to count on reading it somewhere.

WARD

Yeah. He did it for the nurserymen who did not have the opportunity to come to Raleigh to attend classes. He taught classes in Asheville and Charlotte, classes in New Bern, and I believe, in Wilmington. Sometimes he would teach them and drive back the same day. Charlotte, he would teach a class and drive back that night. Asheville, he would teach a class and drive back that night, and then teach a class the next morning in Raleigh to students at NC State University. I’ve heard this story repeated by many people who took his classes. One nurseryman told me that when he left the class in Charlotte, he felt like he had had a religious experience—“a tent meeting” I think he called it.

JOHNSON

I think he was famous for encouraging nurserymen to take cuttings from the arboretum, which was unheard of then and still is!

WARD

That’s right! It was very rare for anybody to allow a nurseryman with a pair of clippers to come into a garden or a public arboretum to take cuttings, but he did that. At the time, and we are talking about the 1970’s and the early 80’s, no other arboretum did that and I think I could probably count on one hand the number of public gardens that even allow that today.

JOHNSON

He shared lots of cuttings, plants, for nurseryman to go back and try themselves, didn’t rely totally on the test gardens at the arboretum.

WARD

That’s right, because many of the nurseries were in different regions of the state, different soil types, different climate conditions and they were able to put these cuttings or a seed, in some cases, into their own greenhouses and try them and grow them and determine how they would grow and turn around and sell them. Of course, that turn around and gave the diversity in the landscape that he was looking for because the arboretum, itself, and J.C. was not able to amass a production area large enough to satisfy the gardening public at that time, so he realized that it was the nursery industry that could do it. He got the idea of introducing plants in his travels, and in particular, I remember reading about his going to University of British Columbia and seeing that they had an introduction program there in Canada which he took note of and brought back to North Carolina and actually patterned the plant introduction program after what they were doing there. In fact, one of the head nurserymen, who was head of the Nurseryman Association of North Carolina, told me that J.C. invited him to go out there on his own and look at the operation and see how they were doing it, and he came back and agreed with J.C. and the two of them began introducing cuttings to the nursery and to North Carolina.

JOHNSON

I think J.C. is famous for travel odysseys. Early on he traveled western US, extensively, looking at arboretums, botanical gardens.

WARD

Yeah, he got the traveling bug even as a student when he was a graduate student at the University of Maryland he traveled with friends to western United States for three or four months before he had military service in Vietnam and other locations. But he loved to travel and he took his first job in Florida with the cut flower industry there, they had plenty of money which allowed J.C. to travel around the United States and into Europe and in Asia to look at plants. He also made trips to Mexico and Central America to look at plants, so traveling was always in his blood and he couldn’t get enough of it. Not only was it a passion of his but he passed it on to a lot of his students. When he was teaching in Texas and teaching in North Carolina at the University, he would often times take students on trips for long weekends to see botanical gardens and arboreta and museums and horticultural society meetings. Traveling was a passion, but he took time to relax when he was on these trips; he went to museums, he went to plays, he read books, he enjoyed meeting new people, but still there was a bit of shyness about him—took a while to overcome when you met him for the first time.

JOHNSON

Because parts of China and even southern Japan have climates similar to ours, I suspect he found lots of plants there that would be grown in our area.

WARD

He did—eastern China, eastern Asia, and eastern United States, for example, have similar climate patterns, they are at the same, basically, latitude. Historically there were connected genetically and evolutionary. As a result of that, many of the same types of plants that grow in the eastern United States also grow in China. And that’s the very type of plant that he found that were not being utilized in the southeast. For example, there are dogwoods, and hollies, and hydrangeas that are native to American southeast that grow here very well, but there’s not many of them. But there are also the same types of plants that grow in eastern Asia which when J.C. brought them in, found that they would grow very well here in the southeast, so that’s the kind of diversity he was talking about introducing that had been overlooked until the mid-1970’s and 80’s when he came in and started promoting landscape diversity.

JOHNSON

I recall he may have introduced or at least studied upwards of 9,000 different plants.

WARD

It is in the thousands; I don’t remember if 9,000 is the exact number or not, but he introduced at least four or five hundred new taxa or types of plants to the nursery industry while he was here. The 9,000 that I think you referred to may be the number of cuttings that he allowed on an annual basis for the nursery industry to take—I think that’s what you’re talking about.

JOHNSON

Okay. To open the exhibit at the North Carolina State library, you had a special guest to come down?

WARD

Yes, his name was Richard Olson—Dr. Richard Olson—he was a student here at NC State while J.C. was here. He left NC State and graduated, went to Georgia, got a master’s degree and came back after J.C. had died and got a PhD degree with the research scientist up in Asheville, but recently he has been working at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. and has been appointed in the past year as the Director of the National Arboretum. That is probably the preeminent public landscape garden in the United States, and so it’s very nice to think that one of J.C.’s students has risen to the very top of the pile in terms of arboretum directorship.

JOHNSON

Almost anywhere we look in the plant world, we can see some trace of J.C. Raulston. Is that what you found as you interviewed and read about J.C.?

WARD

Yes, in terms of plants in the landscape, sooner or later it’s easier to place your finger on the plant and trace its history or backtrack it to a plant that J.C. introduced. Many people believe that he probably introduced more plants into the landscape in the later part of the 20th Century than anyone else. Richard Olson, the fellow I mentioned, who is the head of the National Arboretum, now, told me that he thinks that probably a better way of expressing that is that J.C. introduced more people to plants than anyone else.

JOHNSON

As I understand, when the arboretum began there were only two employees: J.C. and one other paid employee. How did he accomplish as much as he did with just two paid employees?

WARD

That’s right. Almost all of the work in the early years and really until the mid-90’s were done by students in landscape and horticulture programs that North Carolina State University and by volunteers—adults like me and other people who would volunteer on weekends or after hours to help J.C. to get the arboretum founded and get it going, so that has always been a part of the arboretum’s genetics, I guess you’d say, is that it has pretty much always been run by volunteers as opposed to paid staff.

JOHNSON

So, this, the 40th anniversary of the arboretum is a great time to celebrate, not only excellent arboretum, but also the life of one of the country’s most influential landscape plantsman.

WARD

That’s right. One thing, I think we should be aware of is that before J.C. died in 1996, he had earned many, many awards: teaching awards here in North Carolina, at North Carolina State University and also other accolades and awards from national organizations around the United States. Even after he died, there have been many awards given to him. In fact, one coming up in October of 2016 is that the city of Raleigh is giving him the Hall of Fame Award.

JOHNSON

I have sincerely appreciated your time, Bobby! What a great insight into J.C. Raulston. We thank you for one, taking time today, but most importantly for researching and writing the book Chlorophyll In His Veins.

WARD

Thank you for inviting me here today!

JOHNSON

If this interview tweaks your interest in J. C. Raulston, read Bobby Ward’s biography of

  1. C. There is an exhibit, “Plan and Plant for a Better World,” at the D. H. Hill Library on the North Carolina State University campus and it’s there until January 8th, 2017. Why not plan a visit to the J. C. Raulston Arboretum this week?

You have been listing to Getting Dirty in Your Garden brought to you by NC State Extension Master Gardener Volunteers. You may find this and future episodes on our website:  gettingdirtyinyourgarden.org.

Until next time, why not go out and get dirty in your garden?

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Was the information on this page helpful? Yes check No close
Scannable QR Code to Access Electronic Version This page can also be accessed from: go.ncsu.edu/readext?421059