Brace yourselves — the plant enthusiasts are coming. From Tuesday, July 15 through Saturday, July 19, Western North Carolina will once again play host to the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference, an annual event based at Western Carolina University with workshops and field trips exploring many aspects of native plants — including home gardening, wild edibles, ethnobotany, plant photography, botanical illustration, stream restoration and backyard rain gardens.
“Unlike a lot of academic conferences, the Cullowhee conference has a really diverse audience,” says conference director Robert Wyatt. “There are enthusiasts, gardeners and landscapers, but also nursery owners, breeders and landscape designers. We also have a wide array of speakers — from academics to people who are working to preserve natural areas.”
Wyatt, a retired botany and ecology professor from the University of Georgia, began attending the conference 15 years ago while serving as the director of the Highlands Biological Station. This is the 31st year of the conference, but Wyatt — who says he is looking forward to a lecture from caterpillar expert David Wagner and a canoe trip along the Little Tennessee River — says each year offers new experiences.
“We’ve always got new places we’re going to or new trip leaders who are focusing on a different aspect of that place,” Wyatt says. “So even if you’re taking a trip to a place you’ve been before, you’ll learn something new from a trip leader who is highlighting something different.”
Adam Bigelow, one of the conference’s field-trip leaders and the garden manager at the Cullowhee Community Garden, says the conference is a way for the public to learn about incorporating native plants into their home gardens.
“Using native plants in your landscape is really environmentally friendly,” Bigelow says. “Often, once you get them established, there’s really no need for fertilizing or extra water management. You’re using plants that are native to your region and are adapted to live there, so they do well.”
Native plants support a variety of animal life, including native insects and pollinators, and help attract birds to gardens, Bigelow adds. In addition to the lectures and field trips, the conference includes a vendor fair where regional nurseries will have many varieties of natives for purchase.
Bigelow says it’s ironic that he now leads field trips at the conference, as he was once skeptical of their value. As a Jackson County resident, he initially didn’t see the need to pay the extra cost to attend trips to places he regularly hikes. However, a conference walk around WCU’s campus changed his mind.
“I’ve walked that campus hundreds of times, but I never saw it like I did that day,” Bigelow says. “On a Cullowhee Native Plants Conference field trip you’re walking along with very talented and knowledgeable trip leaders, but the people who are with you are also top-level botanists, nursery owners or, as it happened for me, the author of your very favorite wildflower book. It’s amazing how much you begin to see when you’ve got so many people to point out new things to you.”
“It’s changed the way I walk in the forest,” he adds. “I used to walk with my head up, looking for waterfalls and beautiful views. Now I do a slow walk, with my head down, trying to see every flower and every single thing I can.”
Registration for the conference is $125 and is open through July 11. Field trips are an additional cost and range from $75-90. For more information visit nativeplantconference.wcu.edu
Get a feel for what’s like to go on a field trip with the Cullowhee Native Plants conference as Adam Bigelow leads Xpress on a tour of the Black Balsam trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway and some of the native plants found there. At this year’s conference, Bigelow will be co-leading an ethnobotanical exploration of Panthertown Valley with ethnobotanist David Cozzo, as well as hosting a workshop on how to remove invasive non-natives from organic gardens at the Cullowhee Community Garden.