Renowned Avent col­lec­tion, with fund­ing, could grow NCSU ar­bore­tum

The News & Observer - - Front Page - BY MARTHA QUILLIN [email protected]­sob­server.com

The pri­vately owned 28-acre Ju­niper Level Botanic Garden in south­ern Wake County, renowned among lovers of rare and un­usual plants from around the world, will be­come a satel­lite to N.C. State Uni­ver­sity’s JC Raulston Ar­bore­tum if pro­mot­ers can raise enough of an en­dow­ment to fund op­er­a­tions.

The garden and ad­join­ing nurs­ery, Plant De­lights, were started three decades ago by NCSU grad­u­ate Tony Avent and his late wife. They’re now open to visi­tors and re­searchers by ap­point­ment and on se­lect week­ends dur­ing each sea­son. Once the en­dow­ment is fully funded and all the prop­erty is trans­ferred to NCSU, Avent said Fri­day, the prop­erty will op­er­ate more like Raulston Ar­bore­tum, which is open ev­ery day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Avent said putting Ju­niper Level and Raulston un­der one um­brella is the ideal pair­ing, be­cause they both pro­mote plant di­ver­sity and sus­tain­abil­ity by teach­ing peo­ple what they can grow at home, and by shar­ing spec­i­mens of rare and un­usual plants rather than keep­ing them out of reach.

Avent, 60, still works in the nurs­ery and the garden but hopes one day to re­tire, and he wants to make sure the col­lec­tion he and his staff have built lives on. He and his wife, Anita, have been talk­ing with NCSU for about two years to make plans to turn over the prop­erty.

Avent said the en­dow­ment will need $17 mil­lion to guar­an­tee the garden will con­tinue to

op­er­ate as it does now, with 36 year-round em­ploy­ees and an­other 19 in spring and sum­mer. The garden will go to NCSU even with a smaller en­dow­ment, Avent said, but with lower staffing – enough to keep all the plants alive, but maybe not enough to do over­seas plant col­lect­ing, for ex­am­ple.

“The money is out there,” Avent said. “It’s just a mat­ter of mak­ing peo­ple want to pre­serve what is here and make them un­der­stand why it’s im­por­tant.”

What gar­den­ers have cre­ated at the site is one of the most di­verse col­lec­tions of plants in the coun­try, with what Avent says are the among largest col­lec­tions of sev­eral items in the world.

“Botanic peo­ple are hoarders,” Avent said, prone to col­lect rare spec­i­mens and keep them to them­selves, the way cer­tain an­tique or jew­elry or wine afi­ciona­dos might do. That’s wrong, Avent says; plants be­long out in the world, in the ecosys­tem, and the only way to make sure they don’t be­come ex­tinct is to prop­a­gate them.

Over the years, Avent has trav­eled around the coun­try and gone over­seas to col­lect cut­tings, seeds or plants to bring back and see if they can grow in the South­east, of­ten dis­pelling com­mon be­liefs about what can sur­vive here. In the process, he and his crew have amassed more than 23,000 dif­fer­ent plant types, in­clud­ing 1,000 dif­fer­ent hosta, more than 1,500 dif­fer­ent tril­lium, 750 dif­fer­ent ferns, 650 dif­fer­ent agave, and more than 240 dif­fer­ent Solomon’s seal.

Gar­den­ers from all over the world travel to the nurs­ery and garden, which spreads across for­mer to­bacco fields be­hind the main cam­pus of Wake Tech­ni­cal Com­mu­nity Col­lege, to buy spe­cific plants and learn how to nur­ture them. Hav­ing a place to buy rare and un­usual plants, Avent said, helps re­duce the like­li­hood that na­tive plants will be poached from the wild.

While the 10-acre Raulston Ar­boe­tum is fo­cused mostly on woody plants, Ju­niper Level is fo­cused mostly on peren­ni­als, Avent said. In ad­di­tion to their beauty in the land­scape, he said, many of the plants of­fer medic­i­nal prom­ise. Re­searchers of­ten come to the prop­erty to study the plants.

Avent said that as he looks for a way to turn the garden over to the uni­ver­sity, he thinks about how for­tu­nate he has been in run­ning it for so long.

“It’s been a fas­ci­nat­ing life,” he said. “I’m so blessed to have had the op­por­tu­nity and to have met the peo­ple we have. They come out here, and we can show them what’s pos­si­ble.”

Do­na­tions to the en­dow­ment can be made through N.C. State Uni­ver­sity’s web­site.

TRAVIS LONG [email protected]­sob­[email protected]­sob­ser

Tony Avent’s 28-acre Ju­niper Level Botan­i­cal Garden, fea­tur­ing thou­sands of rare and un­usual plants, will be­come a satel­lite of NCSU’s Raulston Abore­tum if donors will fund a $17 mil­lion en­dow­ment to cover the cost of op­er­a­tions.

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