This story originally ran in The Mountaineer and is included with permission from the author and newspaper.

By Jeff Schmerker

jos@themountaineer.com

Gardeners in the mountains know that dahlias can get big, but none have ever gotten as big as Grace Cathey's. Cathey's dahlia is 15 feet long and weighs in at some 400 pounds. The thing is so huge, in fact, it's laying on its side, and it has garnered so much attention, it's serving a six-month stint on display at the U.S. Botanic Garden on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The dahlia is made from steel, and is one of North Carolina's entries into the American Public Gardens Association 2007 annual conference. "My impression of this piece was that it was a dahlia that grew so big it fell over," Cathey said. "These dahlias can get huge, even in real life. You can have a head as big as a dinner plate."

The U.S. Botanic Garden's National Garden is the host site for Celebrating America's Public Gardens, a new exhibit. The show is a program of the exhibit that is celebrating the work and importance of public gardens across America and reflects the way public gardens nurture and change lives, and serve as stewards of plants and places.

Cathey's inclusion in the show came courtesy of the North Carolina Arboretum. Cathey said the work is a tribute both to the mountains and to Haywood Community College, which has a first-rate dahlia garden. She spent four months on the sculpture, which she simply created on her own, not at the request of the arboretum. The sculpture is for sale - $25,000. Cathey is known for her larger-than-life and scale-size reproductions of garden items ranging from toads to trees.

North Carolina's exhibit will be on display from May 26 to Oct. 9.

Dahlias are a favorite in Southern gardens today but are also used as a valuable dye by the heritage craft industry in Western North Carolina.

Several garden sculptures by Grace Cathey are included in the arboretum's permanent art collection. "This was my first experience with something this large, and going this far," she said. The dahlia comes apart to make shipping easier. The arboretum took care of transportation and sent Cathey to D.C. to oversee the put-together. "Everything went together great," she said.

The North Carolina Arboretum is located next to the Blue Ridge Parkway, just off Interstate 26. Summer hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Cost is $6 per private vehicle, more for commercial vans and busses. For more information call 828-665-2492 or visit www.ncarboretum.org.