Duke Gardens turns 75

Since its beginnings in the 1930s, Sarah P. Duke Gardens is still in bloom.
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February 25, 2014

In the 1930s, Sarah P. Duke expressed her hopes that a public garden would not only “be a great attraction but of distinct educational value.” Over the years, Duke Gardens have provided the setting for many stories— of courtship and marriage, exploration and exercise, and learning and contemplation. On May 2, an anniversary event will be held at the Doris Duke Center. Honorary alumni chairs from each decade of the gardens life will be present, including Lib Conner ’39, who attended the dedication in 1939, and Allison Vernerey, ’13, a center on last year’s women’s basketball team. For tickets, email teresa.dark@duke.edu.


Strolling through the years

Lib Stutts Rogers ’47 is too busy gazing at the flora to notice when a ladybug lands on her shoulder. Her husband, Ralph Rogers ’45, reaches over to brush it away, and then he leads her down the gravel path, past the fishpond and a little wooden bridge. “We can recognize some of the original trees here,” Lib says. “It was always beautiful, but nothing like the variety of plants they have now.”

Time travel: Lib and Ralph Rogers in 1943.

The couple are taking one of their regular walks in Sarah P. Duke Gardens, a tradition since they were students in the 1940s. Back then, Lib would trek from the former Woman’s College to the gardens— then little more than a slope of terraced beds—to meet Ralph, who was attending Duke through the Navy officer-training program. They would go on double dates with their classmates, and in later years, they took up jogging.

Inspired by their love for the place, they commissioned a stone sculpture, which is set in the path behind the South Lawn.

Now in their late eighties, the pair have slowed only slightly to a brisk stroll. All those walks have helped them stay in good health, and they plan to keep it up “as long as we can put one foot in front of the other and not fall over,” Lib laughs. “And as long as our shoes hold out,” pipes in Ralph.

Tales from a plant rescuer

In 2004, Stefan Bloodworth was wandering around his family’s property in Durham when he came across an unfamiliar plant. A seasoned horticulturalist, Bloodworth can name most plants he encounters—but this one was strange. Using a taxonomic key, he identified the colony as box huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera. He had stumbled upon one of the rarest shrubs in North America.

A tree’s rings can help determine its age, but plants grow without leaving age markers. However, a large colony of box huckleberry in New Jersey is believed to be 10,000 years old—possibly the oldestliving organism on Earth. Bloodworth dug up a small section and transferred it to the gardens. Since then, the slow-growing plant has quintupled in size.

As curator of the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, Bloodworth has been procuring and propagating plants for more than a decade. “I’m basically a museum curator,” he says. With 11,000 species of native plants to choose from, Bloodworth isn’t focused on acquiring quantity. He collects in the name of “conservation education,” which occasionally involves rescue missions.

About ten years ago, he went to save a patch of Lewis’ heartleaf, a rare wild ginger, growing on a section of highway in Durham. “I was interested in it in particular because Dr. [Hugo] Blomquist was an expert on our native wild gingers,” recalls Bloodworth, “so rescuing seemed appropriate.” After getting permission from the landowner, typically Bloodworth travels to the rescue site with a crew of volunteers. “We’ll walk in there with a shovel and usually plastic grocery bags,” he says. They gently uproot the plant and place it in a bag, along with a bit of indigenous soil to capture microbes and fungi vital to its survival.

Back at the gardens, Bloodworth pots the plants in the nursery. After a couple of years, he moves them to the gardens. A decade later, what began as ten tiny Lewis’ heartleaf plants has grown to nearly 500.

“A plant in the wild should always stay in the wild,” says Bloodworth,because uprooting a plant can be damaging. But in certain cases, rescue missions are justified. He remembers trekking to Greensboro one year, where the construction of a lake would inevitably drown a patch of woodland wildflowers. “The site where they were growing is now under water,” says Bloodworth. “We’re rescuing plants that are in danger of being bulldozed or flooded. If we didn’t dig those plants up, they would die.”

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.