Forget the vernal equinox. For multitudes of gardening enthusiasts, the true first day of spring is the day of the annual Gala in the Garden at N.C. State University’s JC Raulston Arboretum.
Each year, the nationally acclaimed arboretum, a colorfully tranquil oasis in the heart of Raleigh, holds its major fund-raising event and invites guests to explore its extraordinary plant collections, forest groves and beautifully landscaped flower gardens. They are also invited to enjoy delectable food, musical entertainment and a silent auction of plants, gardening gifts and eclectic items.
This year the theme of the May 4 gala was “Celebrating North Carolina,” so the emphasis was on the state’s finest food, botanicals, products and people. The centerpiece was a gleaming red 1953 Chevy pick-up truck filled with North Carolina produce – from cotton to sweet potatoes to asparagus to pickles to corn – showcasing the goodness that grows in this state. The gala’s main event area served up gourmet North Carolina food and drinks – the latter ranging from Cheerwine, the state’s own cherry soda, to state vineyard-produced wines, to a frothy cocktail made with Covington® gourmet sweetpotato vodka.
Also true to the theme was the music: A beach music D.J. played tunes familiar to those who spent their teen and college-age (and even later) North Carolina summers dancing the shag at coastal pavilions. To the delight of the gala guests, the opportunity to relive those times came at the evening dessert finale – and dance party.
There the arb’s own stars of dance – Larry and Laura Wooten, Keith and Dayle Oakley and Jared Barnes and Lis Myer – led off with the shag and then invited the rest of the crowd to join them. Somewhere in heaven, General Johnson, the voice of “Carolina Girls” and “It Will Stand,” had to be smiling down.
During afternoon activities, garden musicians Dr. Bill Fonteno, on keyboards, and Laura Kaderabek, on flute, entertained in the main gala area.
The arb’s Lath House, Perennial Border, Model Gardens and Plantsmen’s Woods border the clearing that was the setting for eight auction tents, plus food and drink stations. At center was the vintage Chevy truck, a favorite photo site. A photo “booth,” a scenic spot for guests to pose in their garden finery, was also nearby.
“Our Gala in the Garden has become a harbinger of summer gardening,” said Dr. Ted Bilderback, JCRA director. “Friends from across the community gather to enjoy the arboretum’s festive atmosphere and bid on gardening gifts and one-of-a-kind plants donated from some of the finest nurseries in the country.”
After the gala concluded, Anne Porter, JCRA director of development, noted that the $58,000 in sponsorships combined with the gala auction totals had “exceeded our $80,000 net proceeds goal” for this year’s event.
Those proceeds will support the arboretum’s daily operations, plant collections and educational programs. As a part of the Department of Horticultural Science in N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), the arboretum is a working research and teaching garden that focuses on the evaluation, selection and display of plant material gathered from around the world. The arboretum is named in honor of Dr. J.C. Raulston, its late director, who founded it in 1976.
CALS Dean Rich Linton hosted the evening dessert social near the Bobby G. Wilder Visitors Center, where guests enjoyed another North Carolina treasure – N.C. State’s own Howling Cow Ice Cream, which, paired with North Carolina-made Aviator Root Beer, created a delectable float. Linton thanked the gala’s honorary chairs, Jill and John Hoffman, and event chairs, Brienne and David Arthur.
He then turned over the party to North Carolina D.J. Bob Graves. And soon the garden guests were not only basking in the beauty of the blooms and lush greenery around them but were harkening back to happy days of shagging on the boardwalk.
And celebrating spring in North Carolina. – Terri Leith
More scenes from the 2014 Gala in the Garden: