Women of the Woods: How the Daughters of the American Revolution Found a Forgotten Forest

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On October 14, 2016, the clouds parted to cast a few glimmers of sunlight on a special ceremony taking place on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Honoring nearly 100 years of conservation, members of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) gathered together to commemorate a forest once forgotten to the light of knowledge. The forest of 50,000 red spruce was planted in 1941-1943 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and dedicated to the deceased Daughters of the American Revolution, but its location and existence was almost completely forgotten. As if illuminated by a divine mirror to commemorate the moment the forest was remembered, the sun shone down through the clouds on the unveiling of the memorial wayside sign honoring the rediscovery of the DAR Jubilee Memorial Forest.

The story of the forgotten forest begins in 1913 with Margaret March-Mount, an employee of the US Forest Service in Michigan, who became known as the “Ambassador of Trees” for her leadership in conservation. According to U.S. Forest Service history, in an interview with the Washington Post, Miss March-Mount commented in 1942, “We spend millions for bombs. Let us encourage our children to invest pennies for pines. Bombs explode, pines grow.” Envisioning a nation of healthy trees, she founded a children’s program called the Children’s Conservation Crusade which encouraged children to give “Pennies for Pines.” As the name suggests, pine trees were sold to organizations who pledged a penny per seedling. The American people embraced the conservation program and millions of seedlings were planted as a result of her dedication.

With conservation as part of its core mission, the DAR’s involvement began in 1939 with U.S. DAR President General Mrs. Henry M. Robert. Seeing the popularity of the Penny Pine program and also holding conservation close to her heart, Mrs. Robert led the nation’s Daughters in celebrating DAR’s 50th Golden Jubilee anniversary by participating in the Penny Pine program. Mrs. Robert charged every state DAR chapter to pledge one acre of pine seedlings. The National Society of DAR planted over 5 million seedlings. The North Carolina DAR pledged 200,000 pine seedlings to be planted on public land and also pledged to plant 50,000 red spruce seedlings in Pisgah National Forest near the planned route for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Like the trees themselves, a few seeds needed to be planted before the forest could be remembered. In preparation for National DAR’s 100th Anniversary in 2009, Conservation Committee Chairwoman Liz Hotchkiss encouraged the state chapters to research conservation projects that had been done in the last century to be celebrated at 100th DAR Jubilee. Mrs. Etta Reid of the Guilford-Battle DAR Chapter in Greensboro found a map in old DAR scrapbooks with a purple mark denoting the location of the spruce forest. From the map, they knew it was planted somewhere in NC near Devil’s Courthouse along the Parkway, but that was all they knew.

To enlist the help of a nearby DAR chapter, NC Conservation Committee Chair Robin Masters-Meyer enlisted the help of Cricket Crigler of the nearby Joseph-McDowell DAR Chapter in Hendersonville. Cricket met Ted Oprean, a forest historian at the Pisgah National Forest Ranger Station. Deep in the National Forest’s CCC files, Ted pulled out a hand-drawn map by Mr. S.F. Clark, a forest ranger in Pisgah National Forest in the early 40’s. With map in hand, Cricket and her husband, Norris, traveled up to Devil’s Courthouse searching for the forgotten forest but were unsuccessful in locating the stand of trees.

Then in 2015, Brevard resident Molly Tartt of the Waightsville-Avery DAR chapter got involved, determined to solve the mystery. Molly brought together a merry band of hikers and their dogs into the woods to search for the forest following only the direction from the map and the invitation from the original dedication ceremony reading: “The trees were planted at a high elevation in an undisclosed location.” Molly remembers, “I was told to go to the top of the Devil’s Courthouse Overlook and look backwards; all I saw was millions of trees. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I was determined. I knew this was going to come to fruition.”

With the help of the Forest Service, National Parks Service and the Southern Research Station, Molly and her team began to hone in on one location in particular. In order to prove this was indeed the location of the forest, Brevard High Senior John Breese Huggins and Mike Thompson, a forestry teacher from Troy, North Carolina, measured the trees’ circumference, height, and collected increment borings of the trunks within the spruce forest.  Data analysis and the Forest Service confirmed it; the location of the Forgotten Forest was finally discovered.

After nearly 75 years and countless hours of research and planning, 81 DAR members from across the nation, plus over 100 special guests gathered on the Parkway for the 30-minute dedication ceremony on October 14th, 2016. Molly recalls of the blustery and chilly morning, “just before the wayside marker was to be unveiled, the wind carried it off for us. It’s almost as if we were reminded that man plans and God laughs,” said Elizabeth Graham, State DAR Regent in attendance at the ceremony.

Thankfully, Molly along with her colleagues didn’t give up along their journey. “Were there times when I got discouraged? Absolutely,” said Tartt. “The timing especially. I wanted it done and it was just a process. But I knew it was going to come together, and I wanted it to come together quickly. It took almost two years from getting the map to finding the forest, to getting the sign created to coordinating the dedication, I would say it was the most intense and difficult job I have ever done.”

Visitors may access the forest at Devil’s Courthouse and mile marker 422.4 on the north side. According to forest historian Dr. James Lewis, the Jubilee Forest, “can be accessed on foot by following the trail from the Devil’s Courthouse parking lot, turning left at the end of the asphalt walkway onto the dirt trail, and going back over the Blue Ridge Parkway toward the Mountains to Sea Trail and turning left at that junction. After a few minutes’ walk, you’ll enter a spruce forest. With row after row of red spruce trees clearly visible, the handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the diligence of the Daughters of the American Revolution still continues to survive.

According to Molly, “After 74 years of spruce needles falling from the trees, the forest floor has a lovely rose-colored tint. Trees are now 100 feet tall and the canopy is almost completely filled in. The forest is very dark, peaceful and quiet.”

Like these dedicated Women of the Woods, Southern Highlands Reserve is honored to now carry the torch of conservation in its efforts to restore thousands of red spruce on public land as a charter member of the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative. Read more about Southern Highlands Reserve’s efforts to restore red spruce in the Southern Appalachian Mountains on our projects and research page. 

Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust Awards Southern Highlands Reserve with a $20,000 Grant to Build Digital Native Plant Research Database

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Southern Highlands Reserve is honored to announce the award of a $20,000 grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. The grant will support SHR’s development of a customized digital database to store the Reserve’s plant accession records, phenology, weather data, and more. The research database will further enhance the Reserve’s capacity of native plants in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, one of the world’s most biologically significant hot spots. With the database, horticulturalists can conduct research on our native plant collection from anywhere in the world.

Since its inception nearly 15 years ago, SHR has captured valuable data on its property within the 20-acre Core Park and adjacent 100-acre natural woodland. With every plant that is accessed at SHR, a written record followed with data on the condition of the plant, source, and location in the gardens when planted. Staff diligently scribed observations of bloom time, leaf development, and fauna activity in its phenology records. At the same time, our weather station recorded daily temperature, rainfall, humidity, and barometric pressure. With a digital database, these records can now be used to conduct any number of research projects, both on-site and anywhere in the world.

The unique conditions at the Reserve make our “living laboratory” a valuable source of information to scientists worldwide. SHR is located in a region recognized both nationally and internationally as a highly significant biological area. According to the WNC Vitality Index, “species diversity is high because many species are at the southern limit of their distribution and gradients in elevation, aspect, slope, and rainfall contribute to a range of available niches and habitats.” Like much of the surrounding area, SHR receives some of the highest amount of rainfall on record. High precipitation levels classify this area as a “temperate rain forest,” which parallels the biodiversity found in tropical rain forests.

At 4,500’ in elevation on the top of remote Toxaway Mountain, the plants in our gardens thrive in conditions more extreme than surrounding areas. With increased variability in temperature and precipitation and exposure to the elements on a mountainside, the Reserve’s native plant collection is sensitive to environmental pressures. With the onset of shifts in climate due to climate change, SHR will now have the ability to monitor and analyze how plants respond to these long-term changes.

“The support of SSHT helps the Reserve not only fulfill our mission, it also enables the Reserve to serve as a valuable resource for our community,” says SHR’s Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks in regards to the grant. “Data on high elevation native plants is important as we encounter rapidly changes factors in our environments.”

The grant marks a new milestone in SHR’s history, as it is the first grant awarded to the Reserve. SHR plans to develop long-term partnerships and seek grant funding opportunities to support our efforts to conserve native plants through education and research. This, along with private funders, admission fees and plant sales provide support that is essential to SHR carrying out its mission in the conservation of native plants through education and research.

Southern Highlands Reserve Partners with Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, Contributes to “The Campaign for Living Collections”

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In early October, Southern Highlands Reserve had the distinct honor of welcoming Robert Dowell and Jenna Zukswert, Fellows of the Campaign for Living Collections at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum for a tour of the Reserve and to share seeds for native plants grown on the Reserve. Established to expand the Arboretum’s collection through exploration, collection and production, the Campaign’s leadership envisions its living collection to encompass a broader, more diverse collection of plants with extensive documentation, making the collections more accessible to the public and scholars.

Founded in the 1870’s during the golden era of plant collections, the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University places a high value on the documentation on all plants accessed into their collection. They seek plant material in the wild to maintain a living representation of its habitat within the Living Collections Campaign. The Campaign is a concentrated push to bolster plants that have high conservation value. Its two geographic areas of interest are East Asia and the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North America.

Known for their biological diversity and unique climate conditions, high elevation forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains attracted the attention of Campaign for Living Collections Fellows Dowell and Zukswert for their next phase of collection and exploration. During a week-long expedition through high-elevation forest ecosystems of Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, they visited Southern Highlands Reserve to tour the gardens and collect seeds to bring back to the Arboretum’s collection. SHR contributed seeds from our Southern Red Oak seed bank to represent the Southern Appalachian Mountains at the Arboretum.

Partnerships are a critical component to the Campaign’s success as Fellows Dowell and Zukswert travel seek plant material to fulfill their goal of 395 new accessions of plants over the next 10 years. By visiting SHR, they were very pleased to forge a new partnership with us to ensure a supply of healthy seed material for the collection. The seeds collected during their week-long botanical road trip will be sown in the Arboretum’s greenhouse and in the landscape several years from now.

While seeds from SHR will soon be nurtured in the Arnold Arboretum’s nursery and thereafter in the landscape, the seeds of partnership were sown during their visit. Robert Dowell commented on his immense appreciation for SHR: “Absolutely stunning and unforgettable. I will never forget the time we spent there. SHR has a beautiful collection of plants. It’s very heartwarming to see the love and care the Balentines and the staff have put into caring for the land.”


Cullowhee Native Plant Conference Attendees Experience SHR’s Rich Biodiversity during Conference Field Trip

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For nearly two decades, the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference at Western Carolina University has been a long-time favorite educational conference of landscape professionals across the country. With over 20 field trips, this 5-day conference hosts many types of in-depth opportunities to learn about native plants from experts including lectures, workshops, and field trips. The Cullowhee Native Plant Conference is known as one of the oldest native plant conferences in the U.S., attracting attendees from across the nation to visit our region and its rich biodiversity.

SHR staff members Eric Kimbrel and Kyle Meece attended the Conference, noting an increase in attendees from previous years, including many newcomers to the event. Claudia West and Thomas Ranier presented their new publication “Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes,” which illustrated how to implement longer-lasting landscape designs that don’t have to be intensely maintained. They shared valuable lessons in how to create gardens that are easier to maintain, productive, and aesthetically pleasing.

Following the conference, Eric commented: “The Cullowhee Native Plant Conference brings together everyone from the homeowner to the college professor to the avid hiker to students, all gaining knowledge in horticulture and botany. At the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference, people learn there is an alternative to traditional landscape design that is longer-lived, sustainable, lower maintenance and just as aesthetically pleasing.”

The Cullowhee Native Plant conference opens the door to the region’s rich biodiversity through its field trips. According to the WNC Vitality Index, the Southern Appalachian ecoregion includes the Blue Ridge Mountain Section contains “the highest number of federally listed and proposed threatened and endangered terrestrial species in the Southern Appalachian chain. Most occurrences of federally-listed species are associated with rare community groups such as spruce-fir, grassy bald, high-elevation rocky summit, southern Appalachian bog, montane alluvial, and spray cliff communities.” Many of these communities are represented on the Reserve, creating an experiential learning opportunity for plant experts across the country.

SHR was honored to partner with the conference and lead another field trip, providing SHR with a unique opportunity to have large groups of horticultural professionals touring the gardens with us. During the tour, SHR staff shared stories about SHR’s current projects and activities, while learning from our guests as well. Field trip attendees experienced the native plant gardens, Core Park, and extensively observed the Nursery Complex, highlighting the Reserve’s work in red spruce restoration in Western North Carolina.

The field trip is an excellent example of SHR’s efforts to “cross-pollinate” with other horticultural professionals where discussions of best management practices and lessons learned in the field is shared among colleagues in real-time, creating new opportunities for learning and growth.


Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI) Signs Charter Agreement with SHR for Red Spruce Restoration Projects Across Southern Appalachian Mountains

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Southern Highlands Reserve is proud to announce its formal long-term partnership with the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI) to restore red spruce and the vitality of spruce-fir forests in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. This summer, SHR signed a charter with organizations and government agencies such as The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission and others. The mission of SASRI is to restore the natural condition of spruce-fir forests in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Spruce-fir forests of the Southern Blue Ridge ecoregion have been in decline for more than 100 years primarily due to logging activity and wildfires that compounded their ability to recover from human disturbance. These high-elevation spruce-fir “islands in the sky” are considered the second-most endangered ecosystems in the United States and are home to species of conservation concern such as spruce-fir moss spider, and the federally-endangered Carolina Northern flying squirrel, the northern saw-whet owl, brown creeper, black-capped chickadee, and several salamanders.

Restoring red spruce in Western North Carolina provides many ecological, environmental and economic benefits. Red spruce is a foundation species in the Spruce-Fir ecosystem, helping to sustain life for many other living creatures. Restoring red spruce in these spruce-fir forests will help prevent further habitat loss and preserve the rich biodiversity in our region. Red Spruce are also known as one of the species that helps to purify our air and water quality, resulting in clearer skies and cleaner water. Restoring red spruce offers a compounding economic benefit, enticing tourists to visit the region as they clear the air and preserve our long-range viewsheds. These air and water quality services are priceless to the vitality of our region’s communities and tourism-based economy.

With a proven track record of growing high quality red spruce trees from seed, SHR’s role in SASRI is to provide the spruce trees to be planted on all SASRI restoration projects. Over the past few years, SHR has worked with SASRI to plant over 2,000 red spruce trees on public lands. SHR currently has thousands of red spruce seedlings in propagation and hundreds of young spruce trees ready for transplant in its Nursery Complex. The successful restoration of red spruce to public lands in Western NC will ensure the threads within the web of life here in our national forests and along the parkway will be preserved for generations to come.

To support SHR’s efforts to restore red spruce in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, please contact Kelly Holdbrooks at 828-885-2050 or kholdbrooks@southernhighlandsreserve.org. You may also support the red spruce project directly by contributing a donation on our home page on SHR’s website at www.southernhighlandsereserve.org. Volunteer opportunities will be announced in 2017.

Plant with Natives in Your Garden at SHR’s Annual Plant Sale

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Our seasonal Native Plant Sale is coming up just around the corner! Join us on August 19th and 20th and bring home a few of the native plants featured in the gardens of Southern Highlands Reserve.

We will have available many of the azaleas and other shrubs you have seen at the Reserve for sale in either 1-gallon or 4-inch containers. Each plant has been grown with care from hand-collected seed.

Please bring checks made payable to the Southern Highlands Reserve for your purchase. This is a check only event. Thank you!

The sale will be open at the Reserve from 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. on Friday, August 19th and from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 20th. 

SHR Announces the Installation of its View Site Sculpture by Wesley Wofford Studios

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This year’s visitor season marks a milestone for SHR – its second art installation in the gardens! Inspired by the maps used by the National Parks Service along the Blue Ridge Parkway to help park goers identify mountain peaks along the horizon, SHR installed a bronze bas relief map naming the mountains seen from the precipice of the View Site. Surrounded by rhododendron and mountain myrtle, the bronze sculpture invites visitors to traverse the landscape down to the lower terraces to capture of glimpse of the mountains along the horizon.

In honor of Betty and Robert Balentine’s vision and commitment to conservation, the sculpture was donated to Southern Highlands Reserve by Vistage, a leadership development and business mentoring group comprised of executives around the world. SHR’s founders and staff had long wished to add a new design element to the gardens, a sculptural art form, that would serve to beautify the gardens and educate visitors.

Over the course of three years, SHR’s founders and staff worked with Wesley Wofford to develop this art piece, employing numerous methods to bring this project to fruition. With the use of USGS topographical maps, tracings using a light table, and digital photo software, Wesley was able to transform a digitally-rendered image into a 3-dimentional work of art.

Thanks to the creative talents of Wesley Wofford, visitors now have a personal connection to the mountains in the distance. The bronze topographical map features the name, elevation and distance from the View Site of the following 15 mountain peaks: Cold Mountain, Rich Mountain Bald, Richland Balsam, Panthertail Mountain, Mount Hardy, Tanasee Bald, Devil’s Courthouse, Black Balsam Knob, Graveyard Fields, Fork River Bald, Mount Pisgah, Looking Glass Rock, Mount Mitchell, Black Mountain, and Cedar Rock Mountain. The sculpture now sits as a crown jewel at the precipice of the View Site, honoring the land and those who ensured it would remain for generations to come.

SHR’s founders and staff are very grateful for the talented work of Wesley Wofford and the generous donation from the Vistage Group who made this art installation possible.

Cherokee Garden Club of Atlanta Coordinates “Partners for Plants” Wetland Revegetation Project at Great Smoky Mountains National Park with SHR, National Parks Service, Volunteers

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On the weekend of June 10-12, SHR founders and staff joined members of the Cherokee Garden Club of Atlanta, Peachtree Garden Club, French Broad Garden Club, public land managers with the National Parks Service, and other dedicated native plant lovers for a special weekend to help revegetate a wetland area near the southern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This occasion was quite a celebration, as 2016 is the Centennial of the National Parks System.

The target area for planting was determined by the “Partners for Plants” Initiative, a habitat restoration joint program between The Garden Club of America Conservation and Horticulture Committees. Its purpose is to facilitate projects between local GCA clubs and land managers on federal, state, local and other significant public lands. Projects may include the monitoring and protection of rare, endangered and medicinal plants, the propagation and replanting of native plants and the removal of invasive plants.

Guided by the Partners for Plants program, the team’s mission was to plant seedlings grown from seeds collected on site by the National Parks Service and grown by volunteers. Seeds were packaged by members of the Jackson County Master Gardeners and Cashiers Valley Garden Club and sent to SHR and other GCA clubs to grow the seeds. SHR contributed to the project by nurturing a majority of the seed mats that grew the native seeds into young seedlings ready for transplant.

SHR’s Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel noted that the project provides significant benefit to the entrance by “allowing nature to be the way it was before the invasive plants took over.”

Cherokee Garden Club member and champion of the Partners for Plants Project, Mary Palmer Dargan, organized a host of activities for volunteers who participated in the revegetation day over the course of a weekend overnight camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Prior to beginning the plant installation, Cherokee Elder Marie Junaluska from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee conducted a blessing of the plants and the land that was about to receive them. “The blessing of the plants by a Cherokee Elder was the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed,” founder Robert Balentine reflected.

When the installation project was completed, the group foraged for food in the woods and headed back to camp where they were joined by a special guest speaker. Identified as a “living treasure” by Mary Palmer, “Lady of the Woods” Ila Hatter cooked with the group around a campfire and shared her knowledge on foraging in the woods, as featured in the publication Women of the Smokies: No Place for the Weary Kind.

Saturday evening, the group feasted on their foraging delights: spicebush roasted vegetables, elderflower fritters, foraged salad with chickweed dressing, homemade pickled ramps, and coupled these treats with roasted trout and chestnut cornbread, to then finish everything off with a rhubarb berry crisp and a few elderflower cocktails. Yum! Later that evening, the group went to chase fireflies during their peak season.

Like the other participants, SHR Founder Betty Balentine found the entire weekend delightful. “I loved our experience with Partners 4 Plants. We are blessed to have an incredible National Park system in the United States. To help celebrate their 100 anniversary we participated in this project to revegetate an area of the Smoky Mountains National Park that had been overtaken by exotic invasive species. We spent time with Ila Hatter, a renowned naturalist, learning about native plants and their many uses. Knowing that jewel weed can relieve the pain of insect stings and bites came in quite handy!!”

SHR founders and staff would like to thank the Cherokee Garden Club of Atlanta, the Peachtree Garden Club, the French Broad Garden Club, the National Parks Service and all the volunteers who made this project possible, especially the leadership of Mary Palmer Dargan. As noted by Robert Balentine, “even small, grassroots organizations can make a difference when we work together.”

SHR Presents its First Feature Film: “Genus Loci: Southern Highlands Reserve”

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During this year’s Symposium, SHR premiered the final version of “Genus Loci: Southern Highlands Reserve,” a 17-minute feature film three years in the making. Featuring interviews with the Reserve’s founders Betty and Robert Balentine, landscape architect Gary Smith, and consultants, artisans, and key partners, the film the story of how the Reserve was created.

As the film’s title implies, thoughtful design, reverence for nature and respect for the land in its natural state were the guiding principles upheld by the Reserve’s design team. The film informs viewers about the Reserve’s past, present, and future, highlighting milestones in the Reserve’s development. Founder Robert Balentine hopes “viewers will gain a sense of the majesty of God’s creation and the role man can play creating a manipulated landscape to further evoke an emotional response to that creation.” For many, the film is an opportunity to see a window into the hearts and minds of those who chose to be a part of SHR since its inception as they wrote their signature on the land.

An overarching theme of the film is conservation; the need to not only preserve wild places like the land on which SHR is founded, but also to restore balance to the health of ecosystems threatened by activities of man. The organization’s conservation-based mission is featured in the film’s spotlight on SHR’s activities to help restore health to endangered high-elevation Spruce-Fir forests of Western North Carolina. Through its involvement with the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, SHR actively contributes to conservation of the Spruce-Fir forests by growing Red Spruce in its Nursery Complex and partnering with federal and state agencies to plant spruce seedlings on public lands.

Through the film’s carefully selected interviews, cinematography and moving musical score, the Reserve’s founders and creators invite viewers to join in the Reserve’s mission in conservation today and tomorrow. Further, Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks notes the video serves to allow “free media to cultivate the story of SHR to a wider audience. We are by design a remote location and not for the faint of heart in visiting a garden. Therefore, this video creates a window to the heart and soul of SHR and how it began and continues to flourish today.”

The film can be viewed on SHR’s YouTube page at the following location: https://youtu.be/vebvTM50mPk.