#GetOutandExplore: Corneille Bryan Native Garden

web. cropLemon Trillium

It’s Earth Day. For lovers of the natural world, Earth Day is kind of like our Super Bowl, March Madness and the World Series all rolled into one. There’s a lot at stake. Except in our version of “the big game,” we all win. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 and marks the birth of the modern environmental movement. That was not a particularly bright time in American history. Yet this big burst of light shot out across the globe giving voice to an emerging consciousness that social, political and environmental change was called for—no demanded. In 1970, over 20 million Americans “took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies.” To celebrate Earth Day 2016, my family and I spent some quiet time meandering through the Corneille Bryan Native Garden. Inside the spiritual retreat of Lake Junaluska, Appalachia’s most threatened plant species find a place of refuge. The sanctuary is tucked in a ravine that overlooks the lake, naturally forested by mature trees, where a variety of ecosystems thrive shoulder to shoulder. What better way to honor my brothers and sisters, past and present, who have worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between environmental public awareness, ideas and action than to seek sanctuary in this beautiful preserve.

Corneille Bryan Native Garden

web.BenchI read a lot.  I always have. As a deeply introverted child, reading is how I both made sense of and escaped from the world. As a grown woman whose hyper-connected digital world is a non-stop global landscape of activity, I need periods of solitude more than ever. Retreat to recharge. Retreat to be with my own thoughts. Retreat to experience Grace that might otherwise be overshadowed by the demands of life.

Modern Earth Day campaigns have focused heavily on global warming and a push for clean energy. The environmental narrative simultaneously awakens cynicism and push back from climate change deniers, big oil and coal lobbyists, reticent politicians, resistant religious rhetoric, a disinterested public, and a divided environmental community. Regardless of where one’s personal convictions rest, the propaganda driven tug-of-war is exhausting.

In Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue questions, “How can we ever know the difference we make to the soul of the earth? Where the infinite stillness of the earth meets the passion of the human eye.”

web.StumpO’Donohue writes that during times “dominated by anxiety and by what is vulgar, coarse, and artificial,” sanctuary is found in seeking beauty. For “beauty is the true priestess of individuation” awaking a healing vision in the world. A vision of deep interconnectedness that both heals and refreshes us.

On the forty-sixth Earth Day, as people gather around the globe to reflect upon our human relationship with the Earth, O’Donohue’s writings really struck me. “Does it never occur to us to wonder how the earth sees us,” he muses. “Is it not possible that a place could have huge affection for those who dwell there?”

If it is indeed possible for a landscape to love having people there, to miss you when you leave and rejoice upon your return then the Corneille Bryan Native Garden is that place. This time of year, the landscape is literally alive with birds and insects. Rare native ephemeral wildflowers put on a short lived but breathtaking show.

Here’s a snapshot of what you’ll discover this time of year:

Women Who Dream and a Community That Does

web.1stay on trailThe Corneille Bryan Native Garden grew out of three streams of expressed hopes that converged in the summer of 1989. Tuscola Garden Club members were interested in encouraging more native trees, shrubs and wildflowers on Lake Junaluska grounds. Maxilla Evans expressed a desire for a protected place where her lifetime collection of wildflowers could thrive. Bishop Monk Bryan and his family were seeking a memorial for Corneille Downer Bryan, an artist and nature lover, who was a member of the Tuscola Garden Club. According to the garden guide, “the merging of these dreams made possible the beginning of the native garden.”

The purpose of the garden is not artificially contrived beauty, per the garden guide, but a native habitat for as many species of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants as can be made happy in the limited space. The caretakers focus on quality and diversity as core values driving the project. Their vision of preserve and sanctuary houses a collection of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants now approaching the 500 mark!

web.FootbridgeWood chip paths meander up, down and across the ravine. The garden is divided by a natural rock formation that creates a small waterfall breaking a natural stream that runs the full length of the ravine. Wooden footbridges lead to nooks and crannies filled with unexpected companion plantings. Decaying trees are left to house owls and flickers. Feeders and bluebird boxes invite birds to take up permanent residence. Butterflies and bees flower hop. Grasses and mosses fill in the negative space. Rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks scurry about. Neighborhood cats doze in dappled sunlight. At sunset, spring peepers sing the sanctuary to sleep.

Modern Maven

Janet Manning, the director of horticulture for the Corneille Bryan Native Garden, carefully curates the space. Plants once prominent throughout Appalachia are systematically losing their habitat to developed use.

“We’re trying to mimic all of Appalachia right here,” Manning says, “in our acre and a half.”

Manning and other volunteers provide free guided tours upon request. No one knows and loves the garden better than Manning herself. Like the back of her hand, Manning knows the location of the rare Yellow Lady’s Slipper and can predict her spring bloom time with remarkable accuracy.

Some of the rarest, loveliest and most interesting plants in all the world are native only to the southern Appalachians due in part to the area’s geological history and its climate.

web.Oconee Bells

One of the least assuming yet most interesting residents of the native garden, in my opinion, are the patches of Oconee Bells. This rare and beautiful plant is found in only seven counties in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. The lore of Oconee Bells’ discovery stretches over a century and involves some of the greatest botanists of America and Europe.

Not only is this pretty wildflower rare, but its bloom is among the earliest of native plants, a longed-for indicator of spring.

Native Garden Plant Sale

Want to take home a little piece of this native paradise? Well, you’re in luck! Mark your calendar for the annual native garden plant sale.


Eastern Columbine

Corneille Bryan Native Garden Annual Plant Sale: April 30, 9-1:00pm. >> Plant sale located at the top of the garden, off County Road  on J B Ivey Street. 

As an avid gardener, it is nearly impossible to pick a favorite plant, flower, shrub or tree. Kind of like choosing a favorite child. I will readily admit that some of my absolute favorite shrubs and flowers came from the annual plant sale. The most showy, this time of year, is the Eastern Columbine.

We purchased one plant about five years ago. Spread by seed, these beauties pop up here and there in early April and put an amazing display of bold reds interrupted by yellow centers, for weeks!

Where We Are…and Where We Can Go

Here we stand on Earth Day, forty-six years later. Somewhere between panic and denial is a place where, as citizens of the global community, we have an opportunity to “inspire, challenge ideas, ignite passion, and motivate people to action” toward fostering a healthy sustainable environment.

web.Lake viewIn the words of John Muir, ““When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”

May this Earth Day 2016 inspire each of us, in our own way, to seek places to play and places to pray. Sanctuary. Solitude. A muse. Reflection, refuge and refueling. I know I’m not the only one. I can see it in the action of others, all around if we take time to look. The poetry is in the air. I’m showing up to bear witness and I’m bringing my children. This is their planet after all.

Want more fire from some preservation heros? Don’t miss this amazing list of Mighty Girls!

**All photos taken with my Nikon 5100, in the worst possible light, but I was so happy to be there**