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J. C. Raulston

Who was J. C. Raulston?

"Why should we make our trees look like every one else's?"

J. C. Raulston lecture to North American Rock Garden Society, "The Joys of Horticultural Deviance," Seattle, February 1995

Few people would have imagined, when J. C. Raulston arrived at the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University in 1975, that he would become a major force behind the horticultural renaissance in the U.S. nursery industry.

J. C., intensely dedicated to his craft, is credited with introducing and promoting more plants into contemporary horticulture than anyone else during the latter part of the 20th century. When he died at age 56 in 1996, a multitude of tributes flowed into Raleigh from around the world. Anne Raver of the New York Times described him as "a generous-spirited giant among horticulturists." Panayoti Kelaidis of the Denver Botanic Gardens portrayed him as the "sanest and sweetest voice of contemporary horticulture in the United States."

After having established the NCSU Arboretum in 1976 (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), J. C. began mentoring scores of promising students and making connections among plantsmen, botanical gardens, arboreta, nursery owners, and landscapers. During the next two decades—until his untimely death in an automobile accident—his effect on horticulturists and plant lovers extended from the Southeast throughout the U.S. and beyond. J. C. became widely recognized as a dynamo in promoting and introducing such "new" plants as Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem' and others that changed our landscape and brought new excitement to gardening.

In the mid-1970s, the nursery industry across the U.S. was in a bit of a rut, offering a limited range of traditional landscape plants. Japanese and Chinese hollies, azaleas, oaks, and maples were the most commonly used landscape plants, recalls Bill Wilder, who served as executive director of the North Carolina Association of Nurserymen and was associated with the North Carolina Landscape Association during much of the time that J. C. was at North Carolina State University. But Raulston set out to change all that with new plant introductions, and he succeeded through what many of his protégés describe as an infectious enthusiasm and selflessness.

The scant number of previously unused plants available at garden centers would steadily increase through J. C.'s drive and leadership, and from the industry's cooperative response to get these plants into commerce. By the end of his first decade at NC State, the "green" industry—fueled by a regional construction boom—was seeing significantly increased sales. J. C. promoted hundreds of plants for growing, testing, and sharing with the industry and the public.

According to Bill Wilder, "J. C. broadened the plant palette in the state and the Southeast by a hundred-fold, and he gave us so many more plants to draw upon and work with in landscaping."

Born in 1940 as James Chester Raulston, J. C. grew up on a wheat and cattle farm on the plains of Oklahoma. At an early age, he became fascinated with all aspects of nature, and he planted his first garden from flower and seed catalog orders. He received his education at Oklahoma State University and the University of Maryland, then taught and did plant research at universities in Florida and Texas before coming to North Carolina.

By the time he arrived at NC State, J. C. had concluded that in any given region of the United States, a traditional palette of only 40 shrubs and trees comprised more than 90 percent of landscape plantings. These plants were familiar to the public and thus nurserymen promoted them. He also noticed that Americans tend to focus on springtime gardening, overlooking the other seasons. J. C. "pushed" plants for winter such as winter-flowering apricot, magnolia, and witch hazel.  And he promoted plants that expand the possibilities of gardening into autumn with beautyberry, autumn witch hazel, and the tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans). J. C. developed the Arboretum's mission as the promotion of a greater diversity of plants better adapted for urban and residential landscapes.

At all levels J. C. was determined to make horticultural changes. He taught short courses, mostly at night, to nurserymen around North Carolina, and he recommended plants with commercial potential. At the end of his lectures he often dispensed "goodies" of free rooted plants, cajoling his students to propagate and test them.

He also encouraged growers to visit the Arboretum and make propagation cuttings from pretty much any of the woody plants. At the time, it was a system generally unheard of at other arboreta and botanical gardens. Slowly but surely, the old standbys—photinia, forsythia, and flowering dogwood—began being supplanted by other fine ornamentals from temperate regions around the world as thousands of softwood and hardwood cuttings found their way to American nurseries and garden centers and, ultimately, to our landscapes.

J. C. didn't eschew the use of  "native plants," but he had a problem with purists who narrowly define them. To him, "native" was an "indefinite concept," as it could apply to a site, a historic period, or a continent. For him, it was more a matter of overused vs. underused plants. He pointed out, for example, that flowering dogwood is a "native" plant, but it has dozens of insect and disease pests, and thousands die in the landscape each year. He suggested, as a substitute, the pagoda dogwood from China, a plant that had been around a long time in the United States but was never promoted commercially.

The list of plants Raulston promoted continued to grow. He suggested the use of Leyland cypress (×Cuprocyparis leylandii) as a screening plant, which became extremely popular, as it was a fast grower. It was overused, however, and became a victim of its success. When J. C. realized Leyland cypress had a weak root system and attracted bag worms, he was undaunted. He veered off and recommended Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem', cultivars of Thuja (arborvitae), and selections of Cryptomeria japonica, the Japanese cedar, as substitutes. When he found that some North Carolina winters could take down photinias and privets, he recommended Illicium parviflorum, a broadleaf evergreen native to Florida, yet able to withstand winters with no injury.

While at the NCSU Arboretum, he tested exchange plants from other arboreta and gardens from some 55 countries. He estimated that he tested and maintained records for more than 9,000 plants. He also promoted plants from his own collecting trips. An expedition to Korea in 1985 with the U.S. National Arboretum resulted in the introduction of the beautiful Styrax japonicus 'Emerald Pagoda' and the evergreen Viburnum awabuki 'Chindo'.

At the NCSU Arboretum, J. C. established collections of several genera of plants. They included redbud, magnolia, nandina, witchhazel, crape myrtle, Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume), and conifers. The collections became choice destination gardens, where home gardeners and nurserymen alike could observe and compare the plants' characteristics.

One of the "hot new" plants that J. C. promoted and pushed into the nursery trade in the early 1990s was Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum, the purple-leaf Chinese fringe-flower described by him as "stunning."  (It also appears to be less attractive to deer than its white counterpart.) Not to be surpassed in elegance was Bignonia capreolata 'Tangerine Beauty', a selection of the crossvine native to the South.

Three unusual promotions on J. C.'s watch at the Arboretum include Liquidambar styraciflua var. rotundiloba (a fruitless sweetgum), Lagerstroemia fauriei 'Fantasy' (a selected red bark Japanese crape myrtle) and 'Townhouse', a chance seedling Japanese crape myrtle found growing underneath 'Fantasy'.

In addition, there are numerous "signature plants" associated with J. C. Raulston. For example, the Raulston allspice—a rare hybrid of Carolina allspice (sweet Betsy) and of the Chinese spicebush, a cross made at the Arboretum—is named Calycanthus ×raulstonii 'Hartlage Wine'. Recently, a selection of the dwarf loblolly pine, Pinus taeda, among the finest trees at the Arboretum, was named 'JC Raulston' by Yucca Do Nursery in Texas.

Also paying tribute to J. C. are Camellia japonica 'Dr. J.C. Raulston' and Liriodendron chinense 'J.C. Raulston', both selections by Southern nurserymen. The red lace-leaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum Dissectum Atropurpureum Group) has become widely associated with J. C. and is the symbol of the JC Raulston Arboretum.

© Bobby J. Ward 2006

Bobby J. Ward lives and writes in Raleigh. He is working on a book on the life of J. C. Raulston. Contact him at biblio@nc.rr.com. This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Carolina Gardener (October 2006).