Cullowhee lily initiative takes root

Ted Yoder, an alumnus and supporter of Western Carolina University, plants a Cullowhee lily bulb during WCU Homecoming 2012 activities. At left, Yoder’s wife, Jackie, and Kathy Abbott-Beam, a WCU alumna and member of the WCU Foundation board of directors, examine bulbs, sales of which fund a scholarship. At right is Betty Farmer, a WCU professor of communication and member of the Cullowhee Lily Initiative steering committee.

An effort to re-establish a favorite local flower while at the same time growing a scholarship fund at Western Carolina University is off to a blooming start.

Sales of Cullowhee lily bulbs and note cards, along with memberships into the Cullowhee Lily Society, have generated more than $6,000 so far toward the WCU Alumni Scholarship Fund, which provides annual, need-based support to a current WCU student with close ties to Catamount alumni.

“WCU alumni and the local community have rallied around this special initiative. Their response has been outstanding,” said Marty Ramsey, alumni affairs director.

Led by Susan Belcher, wife of Chancellor David O. Belcher; Betty Allen, past president of the Alumni Association; and Frances Owl-Smith, Alumni Association president-elect, the effort to re-establish the Cullowhee lily on campus and regionally while at the same time raising scholarship money began to take shape last spring. This fall, bulbs and note cards were available for purchase at events on campus and at local establishments. WCU Homecoming activities included a ceremonial bulb planting and an a cappella performance of an original song, titled “Valley of the Lilies,” about Cullowhee by alumna Kim Shuler. (Scroll down for video.) Some proceeds from sales go toward maintenance of lily flowerbeds on campus.

A white flower with six petals formally named Zephyranthes atamasca, the Cullowhee lily once common at Western Carolina now grows in only a few spots on campus. Some speculate the water-loving plant began to disappear from the Cullowhee region when the low valley wetlands were drained first for farm use then later during construction. The proliferation of aggressive kudzu along the riverbanks may have been another factor in the disappearance of this noncompetitive lily.

The initiative’s success is in large part because of community response. “The community has embraced this initiative and they also want to see the Cullowhee lily brought back to our entire region,” Susan Belcher said. “We feel that, by cultivating the lily, we are cultivating our partnerships, our heritage, and most importantly, the future of our students.”

Local radio station WRGC-AM has produced promotional spots about the lily effort, and sales of bulbs and note cards at events such as Mountain Heritage Day, Homecoming and Catamount football games, as well as through local retailers, have been steady. Bulbs and note cards are available for $10 each at Bryson Farm Supply, Country Road Farms Nursery & Garden Center and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce in Sylva, Ray’s Florist & Greenhouse in Dillsboro and Tuckasegee Trading Co. in Cullowhee while supplies last; planting information for the bulbs is included in the package.

Purchases of the bulb at Bryson Farm Supply have come from regular customers and people coming in specifically to buy the bulbs, said owner Randy Hooper. “Probably three or four customers have said they remember the lily, and a couple people have told me they still have the old lily,” Hooper said.

For more information about the Cullowhee Lily Initiative, contact Cindi Magill with the Office of Alumni Affairs at 828-227-7335 or Direct gifts to the Alumni Association Scholarship also can be made online at