A Different Kind of Arboretum

High-elevation private preserve harbors hundreds of native species

Kelly Holdbrooks, executive director of Southern Highlands Reserve, stands amid seedlings. One of the private arboretum’s goals is to incorporate every plant that grows naturally in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Betty and Robert Balentine’s primary residence is in Atlanta, but their passion for nature and the outdoors thrives atop Toxaway Mountain in Transylvania County, where, 20 years ago, they purchased a lot to build a second home. Enamored by the breathtaking beauty that surrounded them, the abundance of diverse and native plants and the wildlife reliant on that natural ecosystem, they purchased an additional 120 acres of land, placed them in a conservation easement with the North American Land Trust for perpetuity, and created the Southern Highlands Reserve, a native-plant arboretum and research center. 

The description sounds unassuming when the vision is fully expressed: to acquire every single plant that is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Executive director Kelly Holdbrooks estimates there are up to 3,000 of them, and since 2003, SHR has collected — and meticulously recorded — more than 400. “Every year we are looking, sourcing, and trying to acquire that plant material,” she says.

Photo by Karin Strickland

Concurrent with defining the mission purpose — education, restoration, and propagation — the Balentines worked with landscape architect Gary Smith to create a master plan for the property, beginning with the 22-acre Core Park. Within that footprint is the Reserve’s home base, the Chestnut Lodge, which took six years to build and houses the offices, conference rooms, library, database, and research center. Twenty-two pieces of furniture were hand built on site; on top of the garage is the Green Roof, where fringe trees, azaleas, rhododendron, and ferns grow in 18 inches of soil.  

Rhododendrons, a labyrinth, and plans for preservation on top of Toxaway Mountain.
Photo by Karin Strickland

The Green Roof is one of more than a dozen dedicated garden rooms, conceived by Smith and the Balentines and intentionally placed throughout the Core Park. “The area of the Reserve is so large, you can’t see all of it at once, so the garden rooms create intimate spaces that are meant to create a feeling as well as something beautiful to see,” explains Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel, who’s been with the Reserve for a decade. “You have contrasting rooms that are busy or simple, relaxing or exciting.”

The meditative Wildflower Labyrinth contains “flowers as tall as you on both sides, birds, insects, butterflies and all types of activity,” he describes. “Walking this set path, there are no decisions to be made, you can’t get lost, and by the time you reach the center, you are completely Zenned out.”

Photo by Karin Strickland

The Viewsite offers a north-facing panorama of 16 distinct mountain peaks — identified on a bronze plaque — and Lake Toxaway. “There are no lights from houses or other development, and it all looks very untouched,” says Kimbrel. The Reserve is next to Panthertown Valley, the 7,000-acre wilderness area that connects to Cashiers. 

“The Balentines are here often,” notes Holdbrooks. “When they are, Betty spends hours weeding in the gardens. This is what they truly love.”

Southern Highlands Reserve, 558 Summit Ridge Road, Lake Toxaway, 828-885-2050. Visitor days are sold out for 2021, but private tours for garden clubs and plant societies can be arranged by reservation: www.southernhighlandsreserve.org. 

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