Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Culberson Asiatic Arboretum: Illustrating the Relationship of Humans & Plants Across Cultures

Photo by Karen Webbink.
By Sarah Leach Smith, Visitor Services Coordinator
Paul Jones in the arboretum.

This post is the second in our series highlighting the plant collections and curators of Duke Gardens. It is thanks to them that we are a world class botanic garden!

On days when traveling to foreign lands seems unfeasible, consider a stroll through the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum at Duke Gardens. Featuring around 1,500 Asian plant species and cultivars, as well as distinctly Japanese architectural elements, the arboretum gives the sense of being on the other side of the world. Paul Jones, the founding (and current) curator of the Asiatic Arboretum, took time out recently to talk to me about this unique area of the Gardens.

The idea for the arboretum came from William Culberson, a Duke botany professor and former director of Duke Gardens. It started as a solution for one of the Gardens’ biggest challenges – flooding. In 1983, a large pond was created to alleviate the pressure of stormwater runoff from Duke Gardens and its surroundings. The 1.5-acre pond successfully contains the runoff and slowly releases excess water into a stream that carries it out of the Gardens.

Chionanthus virgincus. Photo by Jason Holmes.

Culberson decided that the area around the new pond would be an Asiatic collection, and he wanted it to serve an educational purpose. One aspect that he wanted to highlight was the disjunct distribution of plant species. Disjunct species, also known as vicariad pairs, appear to be closely related but evolved differently, because they were separated by great geographic distances after the Earth's land masses split up and shifted, forming separate continents.

North Carolina is one of the North American hotspots for North America/Asia disjuncts; 65 species native to North Carolina  have cousins in Asia. For example, fringe tree (Chionanthus) has a Chinese species (Chionanthus retusus) and an eastern North American species (Chionanthus virgincus), both of which are planted in the Asiatic Arboretum.

Chionanthus retusus. Photo by Jason Holmes.

It was at this time that horticulturist Paul Jones joined Duke Gardens as curator of the arboretum. In his initial years, Jones spent his days taking out trees and brush, opening up spaces, and improving the area around the pond. Damaged, diseased trees and invasive plants were removed to allow for new plantings. Healthy, native plants remained and were incorporated into the design of the arboretum.

In the early days, there was not much of a budget for development and plant acquisition. Jones networked with seed exchange groups and other botanic gardens to obtain seeds and seedlings to plant in the arboretum. 

“One of the most satisfying things to me is to look at some of those plants out there, which were tiny little seedlings in the 80s but now are flourishing and fruiting," Jones said. "That’s kind of cool."

The first hardscaping came in the 1990s: before then it would have been hard for visitors to tell that they were in the Asiatic Arboretum. With extremely tiny plants and no clear paths, a visitor would have to walk around to each plant tag to get any indication of a theme for the area. The construction of Asian-inspired architectural elements helped to distinguish the arboretum from the other parts of Duke Gardens.

Jones shared with me some of his landscape design philosophies for the Asiatic Arboretum. He aimed to create “rooms” in the arboretum as a way to encourage people to move around from “room to room.” He also made “windows” throughout the arboretum: openings in the landscape where you could look through and see a striking specimen off in the distance, such as a beautiful flowering tree.


The arboretum’s plant collection contains specimens that Jones collected from China, including some that are quite rare in the United States. Metapanax, a member of the Aralia family and also known as false ginseng, is one example. Jones feels that these wild-collected plants help to put the Gardens “on the map” as far as unique plant collections go. Jones has also experimented with Asian species of his favorite genus, Rhododendron, and he has found a few that have performed well in the Gardens, showing no signs of trouble with the local climate.


“I am really interested in pursuing species of plants as they might naturally occur in the wild, and what I am really drawn to as far as a landscape design philosophy is what I might find in a natural setting,” Jones said. “I don’t think that you can do better than what you find in nature.”

Pine Clouds Mountain Stream.
Jones' most recent success  is the completion of Pine Clouds Mountain Stream, a Japanese-style garden along the northwest edge of the Gardens. Pine Clouds Mountain Stream is an example of a Japanese "strolling garden," with naturalistic winding paths, water features, and thoughtful plantings.

When asked if there was one thing that he hopes visitors take away from their experience in the Asiatic Arboretum, Jones immediately responded that he hopes they will be “wowed” by the plant diversity.

What’s next for the Asiatic Arboretum? Jones would love to see more educational interpretation to demonstrate to visitors “the human community and the biological community, and how one supports the other.” He is also interested in what the arboretum has to offer in terms of teaching people about the cultures of Southeast Asian countries.

If you’re feeling in need of a getaway, look no further than the magnificent space that Jones has cultivated here at Duke Gardens. With a unique collection of plants, beautiful architectural details and a glimpse into some fascinating cultures, the Asiatic Arboretum enables visitors to feel like they're on a globe-hopping trek, while remaining in the heart of Durham.

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