When summer temperatures soar, many people look for ways to escape the heat. Some go to the ocean, while others head to mountain areas to cool off. In North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Mountains offer a respite from the heat and a number of charming towns dot the hillsides of these iconic mountains.
Hendersonville, North Carolina, is one of these towns to visit. What a gem. It has small-town charm and, most importantly, flora and fauna to discover. If you have never been there, Hendersonville is located just 22 miles south of Asheville and is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains at an elevation where the days are pleasant and the evenings delightful.
I know many of the public gardens across the state of North Carolina, but the name Bullington Gardens was a new one for me. Bob Bullington, a former NYC policeman, moved to Hendersonville after retiring and opened an ornamental plant nursery in 1979 adjacent to his family’s home. He had a passion for new and unusual plants, many of which survive in the gardens today.
When Bob died in 1989, his property was given to the community and became the Bullington Horticultural Learning Center. The local school district ran the center, but without much vision. Thankfully, over the next decade, and with the arrival of the current garden director John Murphy, the vision became clear and today the 12-acre gardens offer hands-on education to visitors and students alike.
While there are almost a dozen themed gardens here, the true beauty of Bulllington lies in its mature and unusual trees and shrubs. Scattered across the grounds are stunning examples of Sargent’s weeping hemlock, kousa dogwood, big leaf magnolia, native azaleas, and Japanese maples, including several large ‘Shishigashira’ Japanese maples standing sentinel in several spots on the property.
This variety plus many other beautiful maple specimens are found in and near Sally’s Garden, named for Bob’s wife. A level gravel path bisects the garden, where the trees are underplanted with ferns, heucheras and hostas in the shady sections and blue stars, hydrangeas, irises, and azaleas can be found growing in the dappled sunlight. And in bloom, the fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) at the far end is a stunning display.
Other garden sections include the native woodland garden with a half-mile nature trail that winds down the hillside and is planted with many types of ferns, and in spring trilliums, lady slippers, azaleas, and mountain laurels bloom. At the top of the hill is a shade garden with plants that thrive in dry soil.
Close to the garden’s entrance are the perennial garden and the dahlia garden that is planted with over 600 specimens that bloom in fall. The garden hosts Dahlia Days in September to showcase these. Venture into the woods at the back of Bullington for the fairy village, a favorite of children who are captivated by the magical structures and whimsy found here. A don’t miss event is Fairy Days in late June.
Bullington has developed a special focus for adults and children in the community who have physical, emotional and development disabilities. The large therapy garden and greenhouse is their work space where they use plant-based activities to develop self-confidence and life skills.
The gardens are open year round. Check the website for days and hours as these change throughout the season.
Nature Trails Near Hendersonville
For a walk in the woods, travel 10 miles southwest of Hendersonville for Holmes Educational State Forest. This north facing cove forest climbs the hillside, where 100 species of wildflowers bloom from March to October.
There are several trails ranging from easy strolls to a strenuous three mile hike uphill. The Talking Tree trail is an easy, self-guided tour; just push a button at select stations to hear the story of the tree in front of you. Entrance to the forest and all programs is free.
Carl Sandburg Home
My next stop was a surprise. The brochure showed Carl Sandburg’s home and I thought, this can’t be the Carl Sandburg – the poet, biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. But it was. Sandburg and his family moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1945, where he continued to write and produce his famous works until his death in 1967.
The house and the grounds called Connemara are a National Historic Site. The work of his wife, Lillian, is the another reason to visit. She was a top breeder of championship goats. The barn area is a fun place to interact with the goats still on the property, many of which are related to Lillian’s original herd. The Vagabond School of Drama, the apprentice program of the Flat Rock Playhouse, holds performances in an amphitheater near the Sandburg home. These plays are adaptations of Sandburg’s works and are held from mid-June through mid-August. Flat Rock Playhouse is North Carolina’s official state theatre where productions have been presented since 1940.
Hotels and Restaurants in Hendersonville
There are many dining and overnight options in Hendersonville. A favorite for both is the Highland Lake Inn. Over the years, the property has been a boy’s school, summer camp and a resort where people of leisure could enjoy boating, swimming, and fishing. Today, Highland Lake Inn still offers these resort amenities on the 26 acres surrounding the 40-acre lake. Tucked into the woods filled with rhododendrons, azaleas and other native fauna are charming cottages, houses and the historic lodge that offers country charm in this get-away environment. Whether you stay here or not, dining at Season’s should be on your list. Fresh, local ingredients are used to create four-star dishes served in this casually elegant restaurant.
For in-town accommodations, it must be the 1898 Waverly Inn on Main Street. This lovely Victorian-era bed and breakfast is located just one block from the city’s historic district filled with shops and restaurants. Each room is appointed with comfy beds and luxury décor. The large front porch and balcony above are relaxing for enjoying the complimentary wine and beer in late afternoon and hot beverages and home-baked goods each evening. Live music is played on the porch once a month in the warm weather. A full breakfast is included each morning.
Henderson County is the number one apple producer in North Carolina with over 125 apple orchards here. With all of these apples, a number of hard cider companies have started production in the area. Bold Rock Hard Cider receives 60 tons of apples delivered in semi trucks each day, which are then crushed into some 14,000 liters of hard cider. The leftover pumice from the crush is put back into the trucks and returned to the orchard where it is used as fertilizer. You can view the cider production from the large windows behind the Bold Rock Hard Cider bar, where glasses, growlers and flights of their signature ciders are served. Outside is a food truck and seating, along with seating indoors. You can also find Bold Rock in select grocery stores in the southeast.
WHEN YOU GO:
With all of the flora and fauna of Hendersonville, it’s no wonder that one of the country’s top nurseries for Japanese maples is located in the area. Mr. Maple was transformed into a successful mail order nursery by Matt and Tim Nichols after their mom and dad grew Japanese maples as a hobby that eventually became a business. The front yard of the family home is a stunning example of how you can landscape with these iconic trees; they have over 300 specimens on view. You can make an appointment to visit the greenhouses and shop at Mr. Maple if you are in the area or buy online and have your trees shipped to you.
Garden Jubilee transforms Hendersonville to a garden destination on Memorial Day weekend. What started as a small plant sale with some seminars in the parking lot of the visitors center 26 years ago has become a two-day garden extravaganza that fills several blocks of Main Street with plants, garden décor, tents for seminars, demonstration gardens, arts and crafts, and food. Close to 200,000 people attend the event each year.
It’s easy to see why Hendersonville is an America in Bloom participant and four-time winner of this coveted title from 2014-2017. The town is committed to its flora and fauna. You can find more information about visiting Hendersonville, NC, at visithendersonvillenc.org.
Featured image: Downtown Hendersonville, NC / Sam Dean