By Larry Mellichamp
Today there is nothing quite like it and I encourage everyone to attend at least once to “see if you like it.” I’m sure you will find something there for you.
The Cullowhee Native Plant Conference was started in 1984 by professional and amateur plant lovers of all kinds for the purpose of understanding and enjoying native plants better and as a way to promote their greater use in highway planting and public and private landscaping. Landscapers, gardeners, plant propagators, botanists, designers, students, and others were the attendees.
38 Years Ago
The conference was a fabulous interaction among all plant-minded people. A main attraction was the day-long field trips to less well-known places in the cool Southern Appalachian mountains within an hour or so drive of the town of Cullowhee where the conference took place on the campus of Western Carolina University.
In the earliest days we slept in non air-conditioned dorms and ate in warm cafeterias – life could be miserable on all counts. The lecture hall – which held only 350 people – was air-conditioned, but attendance was limited. People would come from all over eastern US and Canada, and there was a race to see who could get in before registration was full.
By about 2000 we had moved to the school gym, a cool (sometimes downright cold), cavernous place with ample room for 500 attendees and more than 10 vendors of native plants and an interesting seller of all plant-related books.
As time went on, half-day field trips, workshops, and study sessions were added. A mainstay of the conference is the Friday night picnic in an open-air lawn, where the talent show and late-night dancing to live (and lively) music takes place.
Today We Have Fun AND Impact
Over the years, virtually every famous plant person has spoken at Cullowhee, and it is always a chance to hear great speakers and find out about new things. There is an ever-increasing number of students involved who help coordinate activities and manage a secure plant sitting booth for your purchases. In the later years more states had similar smaller scale conferences, so attendance at Cullowhee hovers in the 300s.
But even today, there is nothing quite like it and I encourage everyone to attend at least once to “see if you like it.” I’m sure you will find something there for you. I’ll be there – so be sure you find me and say “hello.”
Dr. Larry Mellichamp is a professor emeritus of botany and horticulture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he taught for more than 30 years. He was also director of the University’s Botanical Gardens including the Mellichamp Native Terrace Garden, which demonstrates the use of natives directly for the homeowner. Larry is the recipient of many awards including the 2022 Flora Caroliniana Award by the North Carolina Botanical Garden (UNC Chapel Hill) and the Tom Dodd, Jr. Award of Excellence from the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference. Larry is author of Native Plants of the Southeast and co-author with Paula Gross of The Southeast Native Plant Primer.