Perspectives Online

“A relentless passion for horticulture”: New biography reveals the complicated facets of the man who built the JC Raulston Arboretum and put N.C. State on the world’s horticultural map


J.C. Raulston is shown on the cover of the new biography.

In 2004, gardening book author and environmental scientist Bobby Ward saw a painting commissioned by Horticulture magazine depicting the 25 greatest gardeners of the last 400 years. Included in that select group was J.C. Raulston, the late N.C. State University horticulturist and founder and namesake of the university’s arboretum. Ward, who earned his NCSU master’s and doctoral degrees in botany and plant physiology, was inspired by that painting to begin an odyssey to discover just who Raulston was. The result, five years later, is Chlorophyll In His Veins: J.C. Raulston, Horticultural Ambassador, a biography co-authored by Ward and Roy Dicks, writer and gardening enthusiast who was also Raulston’s friend.

This past December, Ward and Dicks were featured speakers at a Friends of the Arboretum Lecture and book-signing event at the JC Raulston Arboretum, where Dr. Ted Bilderback, JCRA director, announced that 40 percent of the book’s proceeds will be donated in support of the arboretum. While Dicks talked about the challenges of getting the book published, Ward revealed the extensive processes of gathering the information for the 352-page paperback, published by BJW Books.

Author Bobby Ward

Indeed, the book could almost have been called “Citizen Raulston,” with its rich portrait of James Chester Raulston -- like “Citizen Kane,” a piecing together of composite points of view, in this case provided by the more than 400 sources Ward contacted and interviewed for the book.

That laborious research resulted in a three-dimensional presentation of the man Ward calls “the most important and influential figure in American horticulture in the latter part of the 20th century [whose] passion for promoting new plants for landscapes was unmatched.”

The biography details the 56 years of Raulston’s life, including his childhood in Oklahoma, his military service in Vietnam, his education at the universities of Oklahoma and Maryland, and his academic positions in Maryland, Florida and Texas.

And it takes him to his ultimate career destination, his 1975 arrival at the Department of Horticultural Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State University, “where he became known as a gifted practical scientist with a perceptive analytical mind,” Ward said.      

Chronicled in the book  are Raulston’s legendary efforts in establishment of N.C. State’s arboretum, a unique landscape collection that is now world renowned, along with his major contributions to the nursery industry and his exceptional mentoring, teaching and research activities, up until his tragic death in an auto accident in December of 1996.  

Ward told the audience members that the book would reveal a lot of information that they didn’t know about Raulston, whom he called “a very complex person and a superb plantsman who had a warm and human personality.” He then read from the book’s prologue, which offered many eloquent and fascinating insights about Raulston.

Among them:

  • “A perfect crop of sweet peas at age 8 was his first gardening success, the beginning of a life with an unbridled drive and a relentless passion for horticulture.”
  • “He saw potential in plants and in people, profoundly influencing lives and altering careers and personal directions.”
  • “The arboretum at North Carolina State, his life’s crowning achievement, was developed against the conventional wisdom of the time.”
  • “A private person who could be intensely shy, he was more at ease talking to an anonymous group of faces than to an individual.”
  • “He made productive, professional connections and fostered social networking among plantsmen, nursery owners, landscapers and botanical gardening personnel around the world.”
  • “J.C. has been called ‘America’s horticulture ambassador,’ but he would have modestly rejected that definition. He likely would have been satisfied to be remembered for the signature with which he ended his correspondence: ‘Plan and plant for a better world.’”

Perhaps most telling among Ward’s revelations was this: “J.C. underlined the words ‘simplify, simply’ in his dog-eared copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but in his real-life he was unable to fulfill that goal. He crowded his calendar with back-to back cross-country lectures, engagements and student field trips … . Though he ultimately achieved all he set out to accomplish, he spent little time savoring the successes, and he was always ready to move on to the next challenge.”

Ward said his hundreds of interviews yielded two major themes: that Raulston was highly respected, revered and beloved and that he also had many insecurities and doubts. “J.C. pursued no intimate relationships for his first 35 years and spent his last 21 years actively discovering them,” Ward said and also noted, “He had bouts of depression and sought professional therapy, through which he came to recognize his need to defy authority.”

Ward attributes this latter trait to an effect of Raulston’s father’s perfectionism but also implied how it served Raulston when he fought to create the unique landscape-collection arboretum at N.C. State.

Following his reading, Ward presented a slide a show of photographs from the book depicting Raulston throughout his life. The biography itself is divided into two parts. Part I starts with the early years -- “the making of a horticulturist” – and moves through the rest of Raulston’s life as “horticultural ambassador.” Part II, “J.C.’s Legacy,” contains details of Raulston’s honors and awards and his plant distribution efforts with the state’s nurserymen group; lists of the best plants introduced  at NCSU, the five plants named to honor Raulston and the plants Raulston noted in August 1996 that he still hoped to acquire for the arb; and samples of Raulston’s lectures and notes.

Ward concluded that Raulston’s three greatest achievements are first, the JC Raulston Arboretum; second, his outreach to and enhancement of the state’s nursery industry; and, third, his role as a teacher and mentor and ability to socially network with professionals and students.

Raulston’s death, Ward said, “was the loss of a national treasure, the impact of which is still felt by friends and students.”—Terri Leith

To purchase Chlorophyll In His Veins: J.C. Raulston, Horticultural Ambassador, go to bobbyjward.com.