Guest post by Bobby Ward, author of Chlorophyll in His Veins: J. C. Raulston, Horticultural Ambassador.
Recently I saw a comment by Amy Stewart 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.