People, Plants and Pride: JC Raulston’s Passions

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Upon his untimely death in 1996, JC Raulston was hailed for his role in introducing new varieties of plants to the American landscape. The founder of the now named North Carolina State Arboretum was killed instantly in a head-on collision along a rural stretch of US Highway 64 near Asheboro, North Carolina , a few days before Christmas.

A Christmas Eve obituary in The New York Times hailed Raulston as “a generous giant among horticulturalists”.

Peter Del Tredici, a researcher at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, called Raulston a “selfless advocate for the expansion and improvement of horticultural plant breeding,” noting that he “has distributed literally millions from cuttings and seedlings to the nursery industry and botanical gardens. “

But Raulston, 56, was growing more than plants. During the last two decades of his life, the horticulture professor has nurtured a network of LGBTQ people linked by their love for plants as much as their sexual orientation.

For all that Raulston has done to advance horticulture, says his biographer, Bobby Ward, “perhaps his greatest contribution has been the connections made between gay and lesbian gardeners in the comfortable network he created by through the Lavandula and Labiatae Society. “

Raulston organized the society in 1978 at the annual conference of the American Society for Horticultural Science in Boston. In 1990, it had nearly 300 members in 34 states. The name of the company comes from Latin words for two types of plants: lavender and mint, respectively.

Ward, who earned both a master’s and a doctorate in botany and plant physiology at NC State, often attended meetings at Raulston’s in downtown Raleigh. He says the company connected Raulston’s personal and professional life and provided a safe place for gays and lesbians to socialize in a less welcoming time.

A whole new world

“When he went out and had his first [gay] experience in 1975 at the age of 35, it was a whole new world for him, ”says Ward. “You have to look back at what life and the world looked like back then. He had to walk a very careful tightrope to be outside of those he could trust, but not of people he didn’t think would accept him. “

Among his friends – and in his writings for LGBTQ professionals and industry associates – Raulston was remarkably outspoken about his personal life. In a 1983 Letter to Friends, kept with his papers in the Special Collections of North Carolina State University Libraries, Raulston said he found it hard to come to terms with a failed relationship.

“In 1980, I met the man of my dreams encompassing all I could possibly want in a man and fell deeply in love – fantasies of cottages covered in roses and a life of traveling and working together. But it ended a year later when he suddenly left me unexpectedly, ”he wrote.“ I felt that I had finally accepted and that I was recovering well – but at the same time, I realize that I haven’t dated anyone or been emotionally close to anyone since – so maybe the scars are still healing. “

Still, Raulston has traveled extensively and found the time to attend a wide variety of LGBTQ social and political events. In the early 1980s, he attended pride parades in New York City, San Francisco, and the District of Columbia; the Southeast Gay Conference in Memphis; the gay rodeo in Las Vegas; and the Castro Street Fair in San Francisco. And he vacationed at gay and lesbian resorts in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Fire Island, New York; and the Russian River area in Northern California.

He took a sabbatical in 1981 in San Francisco, home to one of the most vibrant and active queer communities in the world, enjoying the freewheeling atmosphere that reigned before the AIDS epidemic.

“There is special electricity in the workouts at an all-gay gym on Castro [Street] featuring the nicest men in town – good for the muscles but terrible eye strain, ”he wrote to friends after returning to Raleigh. “But there is another side to the glamor of sci that draws so many people across the United States. Although there is so much to do and so many amazing men to watch – it seems to me that friendships and relationships are probably more difficult to develop there than anywhere.

In a brutally honest review of the city’s gay scene, then largely centered on bars and public baths, Raulston told his friends: “Sex was easy – human contact seemed next to impossible.

Outside of ‘The Green Closet’

Through the Lavandula and Labiatae Society, Raulston has created a welcoming space for gays and lesbians in horticulture to network and socialize, without leaving their identities at the door. He has organized meetings and events on the sidelines of major industry conferences and has organized regular meetings for Triangle members.

In 1985, he organized a three-day event called Gardensocialfest, which included visits to the North Carolina State Arboretum; the Ava Gardner Museum, then in its original location in Brogden, North Carolina; and WRAL-TV Gardens in Raleigh; as well as a potluck dinner at the Little River Farm Nursery in Middlesex, North Carolina.

Raulston hosts a gala at the arboretum six months before his death.

Occasionally, Raulston presented members of society with a presentation called “The Green Closet,” a collection of slides showcasing prominent gay and lesbian gardeners. According to his biographer, Ward, “this cheerful slide lecture also included debauchery images of Greek pottery and nude Italian sculptures, as well as photos of scantily clad landscapers and gardeners, covers of male physics magazines and the” plant pornography ”(such as Amorphophallus, cacti and plant fruits suggesting male and female human anatomy).

Raulston found love again in the summer of 1986 when he met a Canadian, David Sayer, on a trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, to attend the World’s Fair of ’86. In the fall of that year, the two were living together in a small house near the North Carolina state campus while renovating an abandoned warehouse in downtown Raleigh.

Tragically, Sayer died of complications from AIDS on May 5, 1990, at the age of 34.

A horticultural center

After Sayer’s death, Raulston took comfort in opening the 4,000 square foot home on Davie Street to friends and colleagues, including members of the Lavundula and Labiatae Society. “It was an amazing house and a unique design,” says Ward. “The house provided great opportunities for entertainment, hosting fundraising nights for the arboretum, hosting overnight guests from all over the world, and allowing students to connect outside of the room. class with renowned horticulturalists, opportunities few other North Carolina State horticultural teachers have provided. ”

While researching his biography of Raulston, Chlorophyll in his veins, Ward spoke to former students and colleagues who recalled the annual ritual of decorating the house’s giant Christmas tree with unusual and sometimes outrageous ornaments Raulston collected on his travels around the world.

“The house became so well known that a lot of people thought of it as a horticultural center,” says Ward.

Raulston remembers

Fortunately, in the years since his death, Raulston’s contributions to the state of North Carolina and to horticultural science have not been forgotten. A 2016 exhibit in the DH Hill Jr. Library Gallery celebrated Raulston’s life and work, from his childhood in Oklahoma to his two decades of college service as an educator, horticulturist and arboretum director.

The exhibit, designed by Molly Renda, included a panel on Raulston’s founding of the Lavandula and Labiatae Society and his efforts to support LGBTQ horticultural professionals.

Renda says she felt a strong connection to Raulston while she worked on the show, even wearing her glasses a day after finding out she had left hers at home. “They were my prescription. It underscores how much I felt like I got to know this person. “

It was a gesture Raulston might have appreciated.

Ward says Raulston’s generous nature was legendary. When landscape designer Rick Darke admired the new dark blue NC State Arboretum sweatshirt Raulston wore on an outing to the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, “JC took it off right there and took it off. given to Darke. “

In a changing landscape, Raulston’s passion for his work and his spirit of generosity endure – in the work of the JC Raulston Arboretum, in the lives and contributions of his former students and colleagues, and in a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ people in NC State and beyond.

The New York Times summed up Raulston’s legacy in his 1996 obituary: he “leaves no survivors – except his hundreds of friends and millions of plants.”

Raulston wrote a shorter version, ending many of his letters by urging readers to champion his cause: “Plan and plant for a better world. “


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