Spreading their wings

If you have ever planted hellebores in your garden, better known as Lenten Rose, you have Elizabeth Lawrence to thank.  The queen of Southern gardening lived in Charlotte from 1948 to 1983, and is responsible for growing the native Eurasian plant locally.

(Above) Elizabeth Lawrence working in her garden that is now Wing Haven Gardens.

(Above) Elizabeth Lawrence working in her garden that is now Wing Haven Gardens.

Several varieties of the cool weather beauty will blossom in January and February around Charlotte and in Lawrence’s garden, owned and operated by Wing Haven Gardens & Bird Sanctuary.  A selection of plants from Wing Haven’s “Legacy Plants Collection” will be available at the fall plant sale next week, Oct. 10 to 12, Thursday to Saturday. Thursday’s event is from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Friday’s and Saturday’s is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“I am interested in gathering, from all parts of the world, plants that find a liking to the conditions in the part of the country where I live and garden,” Lawrence once said.

Lawrence was the first woman to graduate from N.C. State University in landscape architecture. She began writing garden periodicals in the 1930s, and in 1942 published the seminal “A Southern Garden,” recently updated and still in print.  She wrote five books on gardening and more than 700 columns in The Charlotte Observer.

“Her garden was her laboratory,” said Andrea Sprott, the Elizabeth Lawrence Garden curator at Wing Haven.  “She approached gardening with a sense of discovery.”

Sprott’s job is both rewarding and daunting.  She digs literally and figuratively to positively identify the garden’s yield and enter each plant into a database.  She also must select what grows and what goes –  decisions that come with immeasurable pressure considering Lawrence’s is one of only 16 preservation projects in the nation selected by The Garden Conservancy, committed to preserving “America’s exceptional gardens.”

Lawrence moved to Michigan in 1983, and Mary Lindeman “Lindie” Wilson bought 348 Ridgewood Ave. and maintained the garden’s integrity.  The property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.  Wing Haven bought the garden in 2008.

Sprott has spent much time researching Lawrence’s records to restore the original garden.  Lawrence wrote of treasured pink cyclamen plants underneath her Stewartia tree.  Upon taking over the garden, Sprott moved other plants to make room for the cyclamen.

Sprott estimates there are tens of thousands of plants in Lawrence’s garden, which is only 70 feet wide and 225 feet deep.  Sixty percent of the existing plants are original.

“The tulips in this garden have bloomed every year since the 1950s,” Sprott said.

In the true spirit of a laboratory, Lawrence’s garden is beautifully kept, but “not always pretty,” Sprott said.  The goal of a garden like this is to educate the public; plants are often grouped by genus before aesthetics.  In looking at a display of Lenten Rose or Ruscus, one can see unexpected differences in a wide variety of related plants.

“When Elizabeth tended this garden, her visitors would always leave with a plant in their hand,” Sprott said.

The Wing Haven fall plant sale honors this tradition.  The sale generates 28 percent of Wing Haven’s operating revenue and all proceeds go to maintaining the gardens.  Admission to the gardens is free during the plant sale.

The sale features a wide variety of plants, and many from the Wing Haven gardens themselves called the “Legacy Plants Collection.”  Visitors will find garden accessories and advice from volunteers and staff, like Sprott.

Classes and workshops next week include: “Plants for the Winter Garden” on Wednesday, Oct. 9; “Plant a Cool-season Vegetable Garden” and “Buried Treasures – Flowering Bulbs” on Thursday, Oct. 10; and “How to Design a Winter Garden” on Oct. 11, a Friday.

What’s blooming in Lawrence’s garden right now?  Read next week’s South Charlotte Weekly for winter plants that might work for you and planting tips from Garden Curator Andrea Sprott.

For more information on the gardens, the sale and the Wednesday “Members Only preview,” visit www.winghavengardens.com.

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