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.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

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.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.