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Wes Burlingame, friend of trees, dies at age 73

Wes Burlingame Wes Burlingame

Westcott "Wes" Burlingame III, who served in the Peace Corps and worked in public health abroad before starting his own nursery and leading tree-planting projects in his adopted hometown of Hendersonville, died on Tuesday at Elizabeth House surrounded by his loving family. He was 73.

The cause of death was cancer, his family said.

Born and raised in Rochester, New York, Burlingame graduated from Penfield High School and earned a B.A. in political science from Ohio Wesleyan University. After serving in the U.S. Peace Corps in Thailand for two years in malaria eradication, he returned to the U.S. where he received a master's degreee in public health from the University of Michigan. He worked in refugee relief with USAID in Laos and farmed in Fiji before serving for two years with UNICEF-Kathmandu in maternal-child health programs.

Upon returning to the U.S. and moving to the North Carolina mountains, Burlingame pursued his love of horticulture, working at the Biltmore Estate vineyards and the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station in Mills River. He then started his own business, Laurel Springs Nursery, where he grew specialty and native plants for 30 years. He spoke Thai fluently and returned annually with Sharon to enjoy Thai culture, friends, and cuisine.

For many years, Wes was a popular vendor at Hendersonville's Garden Jubilee, the French Broad River Garden Club, Calloway Gardens Spring Sale, Botanical Gardens of Asheville Fall/Spring Sales and the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference at Western Carolina University.
Whether as a vendor, lecturer or tour leader, he delighted in sharing his love of nature and his extensive horticultural knowledge so that his “children” (his plants) would thrive in their new homes.

Burlingame enjoyed contributing to the community by serving on the Hendersonville Tree Board, through which he organized numerous planting events including those at Bruce Drysdale Elementary, Bear Cat Loop, Oklawaha Greenway and the Henderson County Public Library. He loved leading animated plant walks and always made time for gardeners’ questions.

He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Sharon Smith Burlingame; his son Eric Burlingame (Dina Blum Burlingame); his daughter Maya Burlingame (Nathan Schultz); grandchildren Wade, Ingrid, Nora, Annabelle and Olivia; his sister Leslie J. Burlingame (Doris Bailey), his beloved aunt Olive Camp Johnson, and six cousins. He was preceded in death by his parents, Westcott Burlingame Jr. and Miriam Johnson Burlingame.

His green legacy is a joy that will fill Hendersonville for years. In lieu of flowers, the family asked friends to plant a native tree or shrub, or contribute to Bullington Gardens or the Botanial Gardens of Asheville. A memorial service will be held at a later date, the family said.