The North Carolina Arboretum has a long legacy in Asheville, and the land it sits on shares an even longer history with the surrounding region. Arboretum Guest Services Associate Mary Noel, an Archaeologist who retired after spending several decades with the National Forests in North Carolina, had the unique background and opportunity to research the development of the Arboretum since its beginnings in 1986, as well as the prehistory of these lands. Over several years, she reviewed archaeological documents, consulted longtime employees of the Bent Creek Research Station, reviewed early photos of the Arboretum, and conducted an extended interview with long-time Executive Director, George Briggs.

The North Carolina Arboretum History

The North Carolina Arboretum was established in 1986 as an affiliate entity of the University of North Carolina System, ultimately occupying 324.9 acres within the Bent Creek watershed in Buncombe County.

Early History

There is a long history of humans using the Bent Creek/Arboretum area. The first inhabitants in this forested land were Native Americans who arrived about 14,000 years ago – they hunted, camped and fished these lands. The Cherokee visited a seasonal camp on land that is now Arboretum property into the 1830s.

European settlers established farms starting around 1800. They cleared land and regularly burned the forest understory to improve grazing for their livestock and wild game. About ten farms existed in the current Arboretum area. There were also several grist mills and timber mills built along Bent Creek. About one-third of the lands now within the Arboretum were cleared for houses, grazing and crops.

At the turn of the 20th century, George Vanderbilt purchased all of the lands that now make up the Arboretum for his estate called Biltmore. Working with noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Vanderbilt planned a linear, nine-mile-long arboretum to be built on the estate – just on the other side of the French Broad River from today’s arboretum, but it was never constructed.

While this land was a part of the Biltmore Estate, Vanderbilt employed early foresters and started restoration efforts to improve damaged forests. This work was continued after all the Arboretum lands were purchased from Vanderbilt to be part of the Pisgah National Forest in 1917. The Bent Creek Research Forest was established in 1921, covering all of the Arboretum/Bent Creek area. Restoration of eroded fields and replanting trees continued into the 1930s, with much of the work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps. CCC Camp Vance, which existed just outside the Arboretum boundary. Forestry research work continues at the Bent Creek Research and Demonstration Forest.

A Cherokee town in the late prehistoric (Mississippian) period. A similar town town existed on the other side of the French Broad River on what is now the Biltmore Estate (photo from National Park Service).
A Bent Creek Family with their house and garden about 1900, prior to purchase by the Biltmore Estate (US Forest Service Archives). 

The Current North Carolina Arboretum Era

In 1984, local civic leaders, garden groups, and university managers worked together to propose an arboretum in the Asheville area. The effort was formalized in December 1984 by creation of a non-profit corporation entitled the Western North Carolina Arboretum. The Pisgah National Forest and Southern Research Station also came on board as partners, providing land for this venture as the idea grew in scope and scale. Through strong support from the North Carolina General Assembly, legislation was passed on July 1, 1986 and operating funding was secured to start The North Carolina Arboretum.

The first presence on the property and formation of the inaugural board of directors occurred during the second half of 1986, with interim administrative leadership and staff working out of a trailer donated by Asheville Savings Bank – complete with teller windows – that was located near the historic Bent Creek Forest Research Station. A development master plan for the Arboretum was completed by Sasaki Associates in 1988. The first major building to be constructed was the Education Center, dedicated in April 1990; the first garden, the Plants of Promise Garden, began development soon after.

Timeline of key North Carolina Arboretum milestones:

1984:  Initial planning for an arboretum begins by local civic and university leaders, the State of North Carolina, and the US Forest Service.

1985:  Non-recurring legislative appropriation is provided for site selection and planning.

1986:  Enabling legislation to establish governance within the UNC System, provides operating funds for the first building – a center for visitors and education.

1987:  George Briggs arrives as the first Executive Director.

1988:  Master Plan is completed (by Sasaki Associates). This document lays out the key features to be constructed in future years.

Loving Nature, a sculpture in the Plants of Promise garden, an example of art in the Arboretum’s collection.

1989:  NC General Assembly formally changes the name to The North Carolina Arboretum, reflecting its statewide mission.

The Arboretum art collection is started. It includes paintings, quilts, fiber art, textiles, basketry brooms, pottery, photography, bronze sculpture and wood carvings. These objects reflect the natural world and culture of Appalachia. New works are added from time to time and displayed indoors and in the gardens.

1990:  The Visitor/Education Center opens. The North Carolina Arboretum Society is formed.

George Briggs at the dedication of NC Arboretum Education Center, April, 1990.

1991:  The first garden (the Plants of Promise Garden) opens.

1992:  The Greenhouse complex and Greenhouse Way Road are completed. The bonsai collection begins, with 25 trees donated by the Staples family. The first education programs are offered by the Arboretum.

1995:  Funding is secured for Frederick Law Olmsted Way entrance road. The National Native Azalea Collection is accredited by the American Public Gardens Association – it consists of 19 different native species. In October, Hurricane Opal blows through and causes significant damage to the original garden (now Plants of Promise Garden).

Groundbreaking ceremony for main/core gardens, April, 1994.
Storm damage from Hurricane Opal, October, 1995.

1996:  Formally-designed core garden and parking area is completed.

An early view of the newly planted main/core gardens, October, 1996.

1998:  Frederick Law Olmsted Way (Arboretum entry road) is completed, dedicated and opened.

2000:  Arboretum hosts the first World Botanic Gardens Congress (June) that establishes a plant conservation policy framework for public gardens worldwide.

In October, NC voters approve Higher Education bonds, yielding $9 million in funding for Gatehouse, Visitor Center and operations center.

Clara Curtis planting along the Blue Ridge Court, 2000.

2005:  The Bonsai Exhibition Garden is completed and opened.

Bonsai Exhibition Garden under construction, 2005.

2007:  The Baker Visitor Center is completed, with excellent exhibit space.

2008:  Centers for Environmental and Climatic Interaction, Inc. is created for promoting and attracting climate-related research and business.

2010:  Bent Creek Institute, Inc. is created for leveraging regional botanical diversity into high quality natural products.

2011:  The Arboretum celebrates its 25th Anniversary.

2012:  The Germplasm Repository is started with the goal of conserving native plants and facilitating natural product research and product formulation through collection of plant specimen vouchers and seed banking.

2014:  The North Carolina Arboretum Society launchesWinter Lights, the annual holiday light show and the Society’s largest fundraising event of the year.

Winter Lights 2023, in its 10th year at the Arboretum.

2018:  Arbor Evenings is launched as an annual summer outdoor music event.

2020:  Willow Pond aquatic education and stormwater management facility is completed.