Hidden Gem in the Eastern Piedmont

April 14, 2018

By Jack Blackmer

“A Freak of Nature”
Tucked away in the northeastern part of Johnston County along the border with Nash County is The Triangle Land Conservancy’s smallest nature preserve.  It is a hidden gem that is more reminiscent of the geology and natural habitats of the Appalachian Mountains.  This quiet little place is host to a disjunct mountain community of Catawba rhododendrons (Rhododendron catawbiense) normally found on the highest mountain tops some 200 miles to the west!  Other mountain species of flora such as galax, wildflowers, and mosses are also growing in a microclimate along a steep north-facing bluff some 100 feet above beautiful Moccasin Creek.

Flower Hill Nature Preserve is owned by Triangle Land Conservancy and opened that property to the public in 1993.  Visitors begin at a small parking area along Flower Hill Road just off NC-231 about 5 miles south of Middlesex. An information board and map mark the trailhead of a half-mile path that winds through a beautiful forest of chestnut oaks, hickories, beeches, maples, and other upland species. The trail traces the ridges of a deep ravine, dipping at one point to cross the ravine itself. Visitors in early May are treated to a spectacular display of the purple and rose-colored rhododendrons as they approach the section of the trail that follows the bluff. From there the trail winds into the forest and then back to the bluff again for an encore show.

A very interesting history

Before the mid-1930s, it was known only to local people who visited the bluff in the springtime to have a picnic and enjoy the rhododendrons and called it “Flower Hill.” In early 1937, William Ragsdale, Forest Warden for Johnston County, invited Dr. B.W. Wells, a Botany professor at State College (known today as NC State University) to visit with the hopes that interest could be generated to turn it into a public park. Dr. Wells was astounded to find Catawba rhododendrons growing and thriving so far from their mountain habitat. His amazement did not end there, having also seen many other species of flora that are indicative of mountainous environments. Dr. Wells believed that the area was a remnant of the ancient Ocoee Mountain Range, which had resisted erosion due to very hard rock. He envisioned Flower Hill as a botanical park that could be of great interest to school children studying botany and other natural sciences.  

Tom Lassiter, Editor of the Smithfield Herald, was among those who had been invited to the visit.  He published an article on March 2, 1937, and word quickly spread far and wide resulting in thousands of visitors converging on Flower Hill in the springtime of that year. On the first Sunday in May, an estimated 5,000 visitors clogged the roads with their cars around Flower Hill, coming from as far away as Canada. Although numbers vary somewhat regarding the actual count, Bill Ragsdale’s visitor registration book was filled to capacity with 3,500 names, and it was reported that many more came that day. What an amazing sight that must have been considering the vehicles and road conditions of the depression-era 1930s.

Interest continued for a few years, but the area was never made into a park.  The rhododendrons suffered significant damage from unscrupulous people, and the numbers of visitors slowly dwindled.  There was almost no publicity following World War II, and the area reverted to one of only minimal local interest.

Renewed interest with conservation in mind

In the early 1980s, Bruce Woodward, Extension Service Chair of Johnston County notified the newly formed Triangle Land Conservancy of the unique natural area known as Flower Hill.  TLC, along with the NC Natural Heritage Program, visited and a report was filed but no definitive action was taken at that time.  With limited resources available, the fledging conservancy’s efforts were focused at that time on purchasing and conserving properties that later became the White Pines Nature Preserve in Chatham County and Swift Creek Bluffs Nature Preserve in Wake County.

The real awakening came in April of 1987 when students in Instructor Don Stephenson’s Environmental Biology class at Johnston Community College urged their professor to join them on a visit to Flower Hill.  On that visit, Mr. Stephenson felt a similar excitement that Dr. Wells experienced a full half-century before. As a Board member of TLC, he began working with other local members and with the Smithfield Herald which ran an article entitled “A ‘Freak of Nature,’ a place of beauty” to re-kindle interest.  On May 15, 1988, TLC sponsored a well-attended public field trip to Flower Hill.

A new threat

Interest began to build after the field trip and it was soon learned that one of the owners of a key 10-acre portion of Flower Hill was planning to subdivide their land for residential development. TLC quickly took steps to attempt to acquire the land, and Don Stephenson took the leadership role by forming the Johnston County Committee. The committee worked tirelessly to garner support and funds for the purchase, but as the deadline approached, the efforts to raise the needed $45,000 in time were falling short. First Citizens Bank stepped up with an offer for a 90-day interest-free loan, along with making their own $2,000 contribution, both of which were critical to the success of the project. The committee compiled mailing lists and made presentations about the efforts to conserve the property to businesses, churches, and civic organizations throughout the county. TLC appealed to its members and the Smithfield Herald provided coverage and articles on the progress of efforts for the purchase. Donations and small grants from county organizations and citizens from all over the region began to add up. The grassroots effort successfully raised the needed funds, all the while instilling community appreciation and concern for the preservation of the site.

Conserved forever to be enjoyed by all

Flower Hill Nature Preserve was opened to the public in 1993 and is conserved forever. A plaque near the beginning of the trail lists the names of all the donors who contributed $1,000 or more and expresses appreciation to all who contributed any amount.  According to Mr. Stephenson, “The preservation of Flower Hill was a collective effort of many people in Johnston County, TLC members from across the region both near and far, many civic groups, businesses and even a few individuals from out-of-state.  I was fortunate to play a leadership role in these efforts and was very thankful for the confidence, trust, and support of TLC donors, donors, and the Johnston County Committee throughout the process.”

Although Flower Hill is the smallest of TLC’s seven public nature preserves, its unique qualities rank it right up there with its bigger siblings.  Sign up for the 2018 Rhodo Ramble for a guided walk through this beautiful place.

(A version of this article appears in TLC’s newsletter Confluence)


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