The Garden of Henry Wright
L. Clarence Towe
Walhalla, South Carolina
Near the base of Shortoff Mountain outside Highlands, N.C. sits a tiny white clapboard cottage. The front porch faces a small yard, but beyond and on the other three sides of the house, the dark woods of balsam, hemlock and oak close in tightly. The one view to the east frames the mountain beyond with its steep granite cliffs giving rise to its name.
The house and adjacent garden belonged to Henry Marion Wright who died in 1983 at the age of ninety. Uncle Henry, as most called him, worked for the forest service most of his life. At an early age he developed an interest in wildflowers and shrubs. As he traveled the mountain roads and rails of the Appalachians, he began to collect plants and take them home to his garden. As the years passed his garden grew as he cleared away native stands of R. maximum to make room for more plants. As the garden grew, so did his fame. Students, teachers, professors and the curious visited him, almost on a daily basis during the flowering season.
At a casual glance his garden does not appear to be a garden at all. The plants are arranged informally, thus giving a visitor the impression that he is "just in the woods." To truly appreciate Uncle Henry's lifetime collection requires weekly visits from April through July. Perhaps an imaginary trip through the garden with all the plants in flower together can give us a glimpse of what is there.
The trail begins at the small gravel parking area. Beside the stone steps leading to the front porch is a clump of rare pink-flowered deciduous Leucothoe recurva, or "dog hobble" to Uncle Henry. The trail winds past the porch and across the yard where it enters the woods. Here we are greeted by a five foot plant of Kalmia latifolia myrtifolia with very tiny leaves only 1" x ½" with typical size and color flowers. The shrub has a distinct Oriental look as though trimmed to the horizontal, as in bonsai, but this is just the normal growth pattern.
As the trail returns to run parallel with the house, the next notable shrub is a ten foot tall clump of R. vaseyi with clear rose-pink flowers. This plant, as are many in the garden, is over a half-century old and has dozens of huge canes arising from the base. This selection represents the deepest form ever encountered by Uncle Henry.
Next to come is a shrub that most would not recognize except upon close inspection. It is a form of K. latifolia identical to Dr. Richard Jaynes' "Willowcrest," with leaves averaging perhaps 5" x ½". Cuttings sent to Dr. Jaynes indicate that it is identical, and in fact, according to Uncle Henry, is the original parent plant. This laurel is very old, perhaps ten feet tall and somewhat columnar in growth.
Directly across the trail from the laurel grows an honest yellow sweet-shrub, Calycanthus florida. Seed-grown plants from the parent are also yellow, thus indicating either self-pollination or genetic dominance of yellow over the type-form color of rusty red, since there are no other yellow forms in the garden.
Below the sweet shrub across the trail is a three foot clump of a fragrant natural hybrid of R. arborescens x R. viscosum having cream flowers with yellow blotches. The plant spreads by stolons but stays very low and compact.
The trail circles behind the house, across a tiny back yard, across the parking lot to a dense stand of R. catawbiense and R. maximum. Tucked away in a secluded spot is a half-size R. maximum with leaves averaging only 3½" by half as wide. The plant is very compact with a somewhat upright habit. The flowers are nearly normal in size and are pure white with green dots in the throat. It has the added attraction of flowering two weeks later than the type form and growing only 4" per year.
Also hidden nearby is a tall K. latifolia that is typical in all respects except that the corollas swell but refuse to open. A look inside reveals very short stamens and pistil. This plant, too, flowers two weeks later than typical laurels and the corollas hang on for perhaps a full month.
Back on the front porch a 180 degree view reveals R. arborescens, R. calendulaceum, R. carolinianum, R. catawbiense, R. minus, R. maximum, R. nudiflorum and R. vaseyi represented countless times among the balsams and laurels. Each species collection has been selected to show the natural variations in color. The flame azaleas range from near-lemon yellow to deepest crimson. The catawba rhododendron begins at creamy-white and ends at near-purple. The sweet, pinxter and swamp azaleas are apparently not highly variable in the area, but add their own individuality and fragrance to the scene.
During the last few years of his life, Uncle Henry realized that perhaps some of the plants should be propagated to insure their safety and to allow others to enjoy. With his permission and with the assistance of his niece, Maxie Duke of Walhalla, S.C., cuttings and rooted layers have been taken of the best selections. These will be released through Betty Cummins of The Cummins' Garden as available.
The cottage sits quiet and empty now with oak wood still piled high for the cold winters of Highlands. The trails are growing dim as the garden returns to nature, but this is how Uncle Henry would have wanted it.