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A plant nut’s paradise

2012 October 11
by Robert

Charlie Keith will be happy to greet visitors to his arboretum. Photo by David Swanson

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
Many years ago I learned that “plant nut” is an endearing term for any man or woman who is truly passionate about plants. “Plant nuts” want to grow and know everything about any plant that catches their fancy.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro have lots of plant nuts, and you’d be surprised at what’s out in the county hereabouts where there is room to grow any and everything.

One of these plant nuts is Dr. Charlie Keith. There will be a rare opportunity to visit his plant-nut paradise, Keith Arboretum, on Sunday, Oct. 21 from 1 to 5 p.m. Though Charlie’s personal arboretum has been visited by horticultural and botanical societies over the past decade or two, there has never been an opportunity for the general gardening public to visit.

Local plant nuts who have already visited will jump at this opportunity for another visit. For the rest of us, I have a hunch that this singular visit to the Keith Arboretum will result in a whole new crop of plant nuts who will return home with visions of reclaiming their own home turf, of whatever dimension, as a plant-nut paradise.

In the early 1970s I house-sat for Charlie and Barbara Keith during their summer vacations. Barbara, sadly now deceased, was the original gardener, creating an American-style English cottage garden all around their old farmhouse and outbuildings. Watering those plants during the summer heat and drought was enjoyable, but I was always intimidated by caring for the hundreds of potted orchids, ferns, cacti and succulents inside the old farmhouse.

During those early years, Charlie was busy as a child psychiatrist at Duke, and I remember him coming home to relax and beginning to become interested in planting some woody plants to complement Barbara’s herbaceous passion.

Old farmhouse rooftop provides backdrop for the koi pond at Keith Arboretum. Photo by David Swanson

I vaguely recollect back then having to water a few of Charlie’s newly planted woody specimens planted a little distance out from the old farmhouse. I also remember that Charlie’s keenness for plants possessed him rather quickly. Early on he began importing from England’s renowned Hillier’s Nursery every plant that he thought might have a chance of survival in our North Carolina Piedmont.

Well now, 40 years later, Charlie’s passion has matured to an unbelievable 25-acre arboretum of more than 4,000 labeled trees and shrubs, some common, some rare and all most interesting as an assemblage of the great diversity of the plant kingdom.

Charlie’s second wife, Muki, continues to support Charlie’s role as a plant nut.

So mark the date, Sunday, Oct. 21, 1-5 pm, to plan your visit, and check out the website ( for more information about the collection, which includes 76 species of pines, 112 species of oaks and 103 species of maples, not counting cultivars of each.

Many arboretum specimens provide year-round interest, like the bark of this Populus tomemtosa. Photo by David Swanson

The arboretum is located on Marion’s Ford Road, 2.4 miles west of Calvander on Dairyland Road.

Don’t miss this plant adventure!

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

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