Duke Gardens–What’s in Common?

Welcome to Plant Exchange Blog on the Northern Plains, where we feature plants and people who grow them.

For some people drawn to plants, visiting a public garden in a new town is a way to get to know more about the people of the area. Our own region has as much in common with Sarah P. Duke Gardens, in Durham, North Carolina, as with the love of baseball in Kevin Costner’s “Bull Durham” movie.


This 55-acre garden in the heart of Duke University is known for the beauty it adds to the campus. Admission free, students can study and gather with friends to relax or take walks there, and faculty and the public are always welcome. Thanks to benefactors and visionaries at the right moments in the garden’s history, Sarah P. Duke Gardens were established in the 1930’s and continue today with 300,000 visitors estimated a year. Landscape architect Ellen Biddie Shipman designed the early blueprint of the gardens to display horticulture artistically, educate about plants and manage the gardens sustainably. There as here, people who step forward, make the difference.


Hugo L. Blomquist, botanist when Trinity College became Duke University, spent his entire career at the university until retirement in 1957. He was born in Sweden, grew up on a farm in Kulm, North Dakota and earned his doctoral degree at University of Chicago. His areas of publication, botanical drawings and interests included grasses, ferns and mosses, including research on sphagnum moss used in gardening. Duke gardens, on the campus must have been convenient for his class fieldtrips.


Today, the Kathleen Smith Moss Garden features underappreciated mosses, lichens and liverworts. An admirer of mosses was one of the garden’s plant sources. He gave his backyard moss sanctuary to the gardens when he moved. Garden staff used sod trenching to move the moss to the gardens and landscape designers created natural habitats with fallen trees and boulders.


Sarah P. Duke Gardens have formal sections with sheared hedges, reflecting ponds, terraces, a pergola, white-on-white flowers and art statuary, as well as the natural moss garden.


A dawn redwood is found among cypress and other trees in the Historic Garden section of the gardens. Redwoods were dominant trees in North America millions of years ago, according to the fossil record. Dawn redwoods, last remaining of that genus, were feared to become extinct in the 1940’s and 1950’s. A tour guide said that botanists around the country were sent seedlings to plant of the Dawn redwood trees. Duke Gardens’ original seedling is now mature there. A link to our region, is that seedlings were also planted at Yankton College and a mature Dawn redwood grows at Yankton Federal Prison Camp today.


L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants at Duke gardens, contains a prairie of that region, endangered species, plants that attract wildlife and carnivorous plants. Some of the plants there are quite recognizable as similar species to those in our region, such as columbine, Canadian wild ginger, coreopsis and false Solomon’s seal. Of course, soil of that USDA Zone 7 region is different than this region, but some plants are widely tolerant of growing conditions. Small world for summer travels.







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