Guest Rants, Unusually Clever People

J.C. Raulston and the Green Closet

Please welcome Bobby Ward, author of Chlorophyll in His Veins: J. C. Raulston, Horticultural Ambassador.

Recently Amy Stewart commented on Clyde Phillip Wachsberger’s book Into the Garden With Charles, a gardening memoir of Wachsberger and his partner, Charles Dean.

The late J. C. Raulston would have greatly appreciated Wachsberger’s book and, in particular, Amy’s comment: “The love story of gay gardeners must be told.”

Raulston, founder of the NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), realized he was gay at the age of thirty-five. Soon after, in the late 1970s, he organized an informal network of gay men and lesbians called the Lavandula Society, made up of students and professionals in botany, horticulture, landscaping, and public garden management, as well as nurserymen and serious amateur gardeners. Initially, it was a small gathering, often at members’ homes, garden centers, or at a bar, and usually held after hours in conjunction with regional and national professional meetings held around the U.S. The group grew and as more women began joining, he acknowledged them by renaming the group the Lavandula and Labiatae Society.  The group met once or twice a year and stayed connected through sporadic newsletters and membership lists that J. C. mailed out, at his own expense, until his death in 1996, the victim of an automobile accident.

For this group, J. C. developed a slide presentation called “The Green Closet” that identified gay and lesbian gardeners, including couples, whom he had met in his horticultural travels, as well as historical gardeners, such as Beverley Nichols and Vita Sackville-West. This lighthearted slide lecture also included bawdy images from Greek pottery and nude Italian sculptures, as well as photos of scantily clad landscapers and gardeners, covers of male physique magazines, and “plant pornography” (such as Amorphophallus, cactus, and plant fruits that were suggestive of male and female human anatomy).

“The Green Closet” was never presented to general garden organizations, but only to gatherings of the Lavandula and Labiate Society and to gay and lesbian business and professional groups. While working on J. C.’s biography (Chlorophyll in His Veins: J. C. Raulston, Horticultural Ambassador), I came to feel that his Green Closet lecture ought to be updated and presented to the general public.  Perhaps with societal changes gay and lesbian couples able to marry legally in a growing number of states, it now should be called “Out of the Green Closet.”

J. C. introduced many new plants to the landscape, but his greatest contribution may have been the connections made among gay and lesbian gardeners in the comfortable network he created through the Lavandula and Labiatae Society. Many of those who attended the meetings became business and/or life partners and today are working as nurserymen, horticulturists, garden managers, and garden writers.

J. C. had his own love story, but it was cut short after only four years by the death of his partner. Nevertheless, J. C., a voracious reader of gay literature, would have been delighted with Wachsberger’s memoir and its “love story of gay gardeners.

Bobby J. Ward lives, writes, and gardens in Raleigh, North Carolina. Contact him at www.bobbyjward.com.

Posted by on August 23, 2012 at 3:23 am, in the category Guest Rants, Unusually Clever People.
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17 Responses to “J.C. Raulston and the Green Closet”

  1. Susan Harris says:

    Wonderful post! Thanks, Bobby.

  2. Allen Bush says:

    Lovely post, Bobby. It’s a pity the Garden Rant can’t see J.C.’s dazzling dinner jacket in vibrant color. I can’t forget that splendor!

  3. Thank you so much for this post. As a gay man who gardens and blogs on Long Island, I was especially touched. It is so important to know our history — and it’s a reason that I am able to post about my own gardening exploits with my husband. I’m looking forward to reading the book. Again, many thanks.

  4. Dennis Gentry II says:

    this is a beautiful story, i cannot wait to read the book.

  5. Susan says:

    I am always delighted and tickled to see articles in the mainstream magazines about gay couples and their gardens (or their houses/apartments). It kind of makes me laugh to think about the discomfort of certain segments of our society in seeing these articles. It has always puzzled me however that there have been extremely few articles about lesbian couples in these same home and garden magazines. And you can’t tell me that lesbians are only into softball as one lesbian friend told me!

    • Deborah B says:

      I always wondered about that too. Apparently gay couples are better connected to magazine editor circles than lesbian couples.

  6. Jim Freeman says:

    J.C. Raulston was one of the greats of late 20th century gardening, and he deserves to be recognized as a gay man and as a gardener. Glad to see this story coming out, and hope the Green Closet makes it to the public in some form.

    And that jacket is awesome!

  7. Sandra Knauf says:

    What a wonderful article! So many of our most gifted and artistic gardeners are gay. It’s high time to recognize them for the leaders they have been, and are, in horticulture.

  8. “Out of the Green Closet” could be one more tool to educate those who have not had the privilege of fantastic friendships or working relationships with the gay community and can finally begin to understand how these men and women have made our world an infinitely more beautiful and wonderful place.

  9. I so very much want to visit the arboretum. What a wonderful legacy to have left behind.

  10. Bill Barnes says:

    J. C. being a good friend of mine , once told me that being gay just meant learning how to love another person . I think JC was beloved by many both gay and not so gay and I am sure he knew that but as Bobby’s book says he had his detractors . He was a great man and gave us all such lasting gifts that it is hard to pin them all down . I think of him regularly.

  11. Frank Hyman says:

    As a student in the hort dept. at NCSU in the late 80′s, my brain was cracked wide open by JC. Now when among plants, I feel like I can see the world from their particular, sunlight-eating perspective.

    And he wasn’t afraid to share some of the trials of his Oklahoma childhood and some (not all) of his adult trials with students, such that he came across as one of the most human and approachable of the faculty. Charming man, great leader, powerful teacher. Hate it that he can’t see the things I’ve done with what he taught me almost 25 years ago.

    Thanks for the post Bobby.

  12. This was a great post. Well written and a worthy subject.

  13. Lillian Kuo says:

    I ordered a copy of Bobby’s book as soon as it appeared
    in Plants Delight catalogue last year. I totally enjoyed this
    book!

  14. Nice article. Its nice to now about life outside of the garden for some of our favourite gardeners!

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