Archived Mountain Voices

New book celebrates diversity and Biological Station

In regard to floral diversity, the Southern Appalachian region is unsurpassed by any other temperate region in the world. Whenever I’m conducting a plant identification workshop for the North Carolina Arboretum, Smoky Mountain Field School or other venue, I try to remember to mention nature gardens, plant nurseries, self-guided trails, natural history exhibits, etc., that might be of interest. At the head of my list is the Highlands Botanical Garden (HBG), which features 500 native moss, fern, grass, sedge, herbaceous wildflower, vine, shrub, and tree species (approximately 350 of which are labeled).

Located near downtown Highlands, the HBG and adjacent Highlands Nature Center are part of the Highlands Biological Station, a research center of the University of North Carolina system administered by Western Carolina University. Founded in 1962, the HBG is free and open every day of the year from sunrise to sunset.

In addition to commonly encountered species like, say, hepatica, jewelweed, galax, etc., the easy to walk trail system provides access to numerous species that are rare or uncommon like, say, millipede liverwort, swamp pink, Gray’s lily, mountain bunchflower, Cuthbert’s turtlehead, grass-of-parnassus, Fraser’s sedge, shortia, Appalachian blue monkshood, shooting star, mountain camellia, devil’s walkingstick, gorge saxifrage, pinkshell azalea, piratebush, Blue Ridge St. John’s Wort, twinleaf, clammy locust, and Blue Ridge golden banner.

Those and perhaps 170 additional species are featured in a new book: Highlands Botanical Garden: A Naturalist’s Guide (Highlands Biological Station, 2012; 155 pages; quality binding and paper; $25) — with text by James T. Costa, photographs by Ralph M. Sargent; cover, maps, pen-and-ink drawings, and book design by Leslie Costa; botanical slide databasing and GPS mapping by Max S. Lanning; and photographic and copy editing by Lydia Sargent Maculey.

Let’s cut to the chase. Highlands Botanical Garden is just terrific ... easily one of the finest general-interest plant guides published in the 2000s (i.e., this century). Prefaced by a “Botany in the Blue Ridge” introductory note that traces the facility’s history and a biographical note about Ralph M. Sargent, the text is divided into the four zones accessed by trails, boardwalks, and formal walkways: (1) wetlands/lake zone (fern and bog plants); (2) old growth forest zone (with rhododendron trail); (3) woodland zone (most everything from A-Z); and demonstration zone (described as “a scavenger hunt” that incorporates “speciality gardens” for mosses, grasses, rock ledge species and plants used by the Cherokees).

At the heart of the book are the exceptional species descriptions and photographs. Being an entomologist, Jim Costa — executive director of the station and author of the recently published Harvard University Press title The Other Insect Societies — is inordinately fond of insects; and thereby, a close observer the pollination-distribution strategies of plants. In other words, he’s attuned to the shapes, colors, fragrances, and the secret lives of plants in general. And he can write. Here’s something, for instance, you probably didn’t know about violets:

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“Many ‘Viola’ species scatter their seeds through what is termed ‘ballistic dispersal,’ shooting their seed as far as 15 feet away, while others rely on ants … as a rule of thumb, long-stemmed violets have ballistic dispersal (the long petiole ensuring that the flower is clear of the leaves for long-range firing), while short-stemmed violets keep their flowers close to the ground for ready access by ants.”

Ralph Sargent, an English professor and self-taught photographer, first came to Highlands in 1931 and was a HBG founder. His slides have been collected by the Bartram Association in Philadelphia. They have been described as “scientific — and artistic — gems.” His daughter, Lydia, and Max Lanning examined thousands as high-resolution scans before selecting the ones for this book, which Leslie Costa digitally edited.

Sargent’s subtle framing techniques and sense of light were perhaps earned by trial and error. But his sense of the “inherent disposition” each species in the plant world displays was no doubt innate. Image after image you say to yourself, “Yes, that’s what it’s like to be a sly old Jack-in-the-pulpit … or that’s exactly how pink lady’s-slippers huddle together in small groups … or that’s the way a flock of pinkshell azaleas perch on bare branches each spring ...”

The perfect gift for someone else or yourself. Copies can be purchased at local bookstores or ordered online via

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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