Kelly Holdbrooks leads plant conservation at Southern Highlands Reserve

Watering red spruce seedlings at the Southern Highlands Reserve
MAKE IT RAIN: Each of the roughly 4,000 red spruce trees planted by the Southern Highlands Reserve was nurtured from seed at its Lake Toxaway facility. Photo courtesy of the Southern Highlands Reserve

The Viewsite, one of eight “garden rooms” on the 120 conserved acres of the Southern Highlands Reserve Native Plant Arboretum and Research Center, is modestly named. From the stone-terraced clearing atop Toxaway Mountain, eyes open wide and heads swivel to take in 16 distinct mountain peaks.

The extraordinary expanse mirrors the vision statement of the reserve, founded by Betty and Robert Balentine in 2002: to collect every single plant native to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. “When you get down to it, we’re just little plant nerds, doing the good fight and sharing everything we learn,” says Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks.

The reserve’s biggest public-facing project is its red spruce restoration effort, which has planted roughly 4,000 trees on public land since 2009 in conjunction with state, federal and nonprofit partners. That ambitious effort starts small: “We start every plant from seed here in our workroom, then to the greenhouse, then eventually to their forever home,” Holdbooks explains. Once planted, the trees help revitalize an ecosystem that provides food and habitat for rare species such as the federally endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel.

At the reserve’s Chestnut Lodge, meticulous written records are kept of every plant collected since 2003. Reserve staff members have also studied the phenophases — first leaf, first bud show and fall color — of individuals from 31 plant species for 10 years to determine any changes over time.

“We are monitoring specifically for climate change. Because of our high elevation, we could be the canary in the coal mine,” Holdbrooks says.

Editor’s note: As part of our monthlong celebration of this region’s commitment to sustainable ways of living and working in community, Xpress is highlighting some of those who are making a difference by taking action on a variety of creative and inspiring initiatives.

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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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