In the late 1800s, Northeastern gardeners and nursery businesses were just as smitten with mountain laurel, rhododendrons, and flame azaleas as the modern green thumb is today. Back then, black-and-white catalogs with typed descriptions arrived in mailboxes, and orders for mountain natives were tallied and sent back to Gardens of the Blue Ridge nursery. When it was time to ship, the bare root plants and balled-and-burlap shrubs and trees were loaded on trains, destined to grace distant landscapes.
Gardens of the Blue Ridge in Newland, founded in 1892, is the oldest licensed nursery in the state. Today, the family enterprise does big business online, but some things remain the same. During the busy season, three generations, from the eldest, Paul Fletcher, in his 80s to the youngest, Lorena, in her teens, can be found helping out. Rob Fletcher is the owner and great-grandson of its founder, Edward Colby Robbins.
The nursery’s catalog reads like an encyclopedia detailing the native flora of Southern Appalachia, from Achillea millefolium (yarrow) to Xerophyllum asphodeloides (turkey’s beard). If it’s native to the mountains, they propagate and sell it, but the plants are never gathered from the wild.
This business approach has little to do with profits and everything to do with conservation and a genuine love for mountain species. A few years back, when a severe drought threatened a customer favorite, the Oconee bell or Shortia galacifolia, Fletcher refused to sell the rare, white-blossomed groundcover, concerned he would deplete his parent stock. The ever-popular yellow lady’s slipper, a coveted plant in the orchid family, is limited to one per customer.
Once located in Highlands, the nursery now encompasses eight acres near Jonas Ridge. Rows of greenhouses stand alongside rows of planted stock, and a cold cellar is used for storing bare roots. The Fletchers care for the plants until they reach bloom size before sending them out, bare root or potted, to new environs.
While preserving and propagating these beloved plants, the Fletchers have nurtured something else: a legacy that roots them to the Blue Ridge Mountains just as deeply as the plants they honor and share.
Be sure to clearly mark the spot where you plant a native species. Since most natives are shipped bare root, they’re easy to misplace in the garden. Follow the planting
instructions and be patient. Native varieties, which have longer reproductive cycles, can be slower to take to their new environments.
Gardens of the Blue Ridge
9056 Pittmans Gap Road, Newland