Cullowhee Native Plant Conference draws diverse group of nature enthusiasts to campus

The 2017 Cullowhee Native Plant Conference included a campus walk to identify birds by sight and sound, along with providing tips on planting ideas for native plants to attract birds.

The 34th annual Cullowhee Native Plant Conference at Western Carolina University, the oldest and largest native plant conference in the Southeast, continued its reputation as an innovative and thought-provoking gathering.

The 2017 conference was held Tuesday, July 18, through Saturday, July 22, and offered a wide range of field trips, learning sessions and workshops led by recognized experts in the field. In addition to opportunities to study native plant life, activities also extended to birds and bees ― in the forms of an on-campus bird-watching excursion and a “bee hotel” building workshop to provide nesting habitat for native bee species ― as well as stream restoration studies and walking tours for mushrooms and fungi.

The gathering of native plant enthusiasts began in 1984 and has grown to national prominence. Presented by WCU’s Division of Educational Outreach and coordinated by a volunteer committee, it is designed to increase interest and knowledge in the propagation and preservation of native Southeastern plant species in the landscape.

The conference was a first of its kind for Attila Csokei, a native of Hungary who lives in Pittsburgh. He heard about the event on nativeplantpodcast.com and made the more than 1,000-mile round trip from Pennsylvania. “It sounded good enough to drive down here for it,” he said. “In addition to my day job, I bought an abandoned lot in Pittsburgh and now I’m working to convert that into a meadow. This conference gives me a chance to have conversations with a lot of smart people on how to do that and get some valuable insights.”

Those insights ran beyond the expected botanical offerings. For example, Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology at the University of Delaware and author of “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens” spoke on “Making Insects: A Guide to Restoring the Little Things that Run the World.” He reminded attendees of the many essential roles insects play and described the simple changes people must make in their landscapes and attitudes to “keep insects on the ground, in the air and yes, on our plants.”

The conference featured half-day fields trips such as this one to High Falls, also known as Cullowhee Falls, on the West Fork of the Tuckaseigee River.

Adam Bigelow, director of Cullowhee Community Garden, a project of the Jackson County Department of Public Health, said the big take away for him was Tallamy’s message. “Native plants are the cornerstone to an ecosystem approach to saving the world. I don’t say that lightly. Insects need native plants and, conversely, native plants need insects,” Bigelow said. “If you want to have bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife in your yard or campus, you need to have native plants growing there to attract them.”

Eli Dickerson, ecologist at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, gave a presentation on Fernbank Forest, an old growth relic of a more extensive forest that blanketed the Piedmont region of Georgia for thousands of years. Under the stewardship of the museum and at Dickerson’s direction, the forest is undergoing a transformation thanks to ecological restoration efforts to remove numerous non-native, invasive plant species and encourage the growth of native species, leading to a healthier forest. Dickerson focused his discussion on the means and methods used in the restoration process and the best practices that can be utilized by other land managers dealing with similar problems in their own green spaces.

The conference’s scholarship program has played an important role since program’s beginning and this year was no exception, with awards to students, interns at botanical gardens, nature centers or parks, and to beginning professionals in a native plant-related field.

“Through donations and two endowed awards, we supported 21 students, beginning professionals and educators from a variety of backgrounds from across the Southeast this year,” said Olivia Brakenbury of Meadowsweet Gardens and Patios of Durham. “Repeatedly, I hear from our scholarship winners that attending the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference was humbling, to be in the presence of so many who possess an incredible wealth of knowledge. But it’s also extremely energizing to be among those same people and meet them, talk with them, have a meal with them. Everyone is on the same page and can learn from each other ― from a retired lawyer plant enthusiast to a published botany professor, from an undergraduate college student to a veteran nursery person.”

Courtney Belohlavek works at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill as a horticulture intern and saw the conference as an opportunity to experience habitats she had not seen before. “This is my first plant conference and it has all been fun,” she said. “It’s been a lot of hiking, a lot of learning, but it has all been fun.”

This year’s podcast from Cullowhee can be heard at nativeplantpodcast.com.