Cullowhee Native Plant Conference, Where Plants Move People

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A native plant catches the enthusiasm of Jan Midgley and Jack Johnston on a Cullowhee Native Plant Conference hike. Photo courtesy of Larry Mellichamp
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By Bettina Darveaux

The month of July is always a happy time for me as I anticipate the upcoming Cullowhee Native Plant Conference. John Muir’s famous quote “The [NC] Mountains are Calling and I Must Go” sums it up pretty well. Of course I add in NC to the quote as there has always been something so special about our North Carolina mountains that draws me to them. Having the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference there in our mountains is just icing on the cake. You just can’t beat living your passion in an area that you love together with others who are also so passionate about native plants.

Stop on a Trail without Annoying Your Friends

Larry Mellichamp (right) and his late friend Wes Burlingame stopped along a trail to investigate Southern Lobelia (L. amoena-elongata) while at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference. Photo courtesy of Larry Mellichamp

Have you ever been hiking in the company of friends or family who become so frustrated with you because you keep stopping to look at or take pictures of each native species in bloom? It’s not fun, is it? Now imagine the same hike with folks who love native plants as you do. Someone points out a beautiful Turk’s-cap Lily (Lilium superbum) with its large nodding orange blossoms, while another shouts out, “Look, I have never seen such a large patch of Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) before.”  Ah!

Flowering Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii). Photo courtesy of Bettina Darveaux

A much different experience hiking with these like-minded folks. The entire hike is filled with participants calling attention to a particular plant find. As we crowd around to see the prize, fun facts or stories about the plant are shared.  Maybe you have never seen this plant in its natural habitat before and the excitement goes up a notch. Or maybe you reminisce about the first time you saw this plant; where you were; or who you were with.

Refreshed, Renewed, In Awe

It is an emotional experience for sure and we all come back from our Cullowhee Conference plant hikes refreshed, renewed, and just in awe of our beautiful botanical world.

And the fun doesn’t stop there. The evening dinner back at the Ramsey Center, where all the full-day field trip participants rendezvous, is filled with hugs and smiles as we catch up with our conference friends that, for some of us, we haven’t seen in a whole year. The conversation inevitably leads to sharing our field trip experiences and all the interesting native plants we saw. In the back of our minds, we are already planning which field trip to go on at next year’s conference.

Workshops, Hikes, and Shopping!

The presentations begin that first evening as well. Followed by three more days of talks covering a wide variety of native plant topics and wonderful projects that are happening across the Southeast. Interspersed between the presentations during the conference are different workshops that are available to join, half-day hikes, and did I mention shopping?

Shoppers enjoyed milling about the Ramsey Center at a recent Cullowhee Native Plant Conference. Photo courtesy of Western Carolina University

Lining the perimeter of the Ramsey Center arena is a Vendor Walk of numerous native plant vendors who bring many hard-to-find natives. The vendors are a wealth of information about each of the species they offer. It is fun to watch the transformation of the purchased plant holding-area fill up with colorful native plants as the conference progresses and plants are bought by conference participants. In the center of the arena are the nature books for sale by City Lights Bookstore from Sylva. The bookstore does an awesome job of making available the books authored by the conference speakers so you can buy a copy and get the book signed right there.

Inspiration Shapes our Thoughts

As the final day of the conference arrives, we are saddened for this full-immersive native plant experience to end but so grateful for all that we saw, all that we learned, the new friends we made, and the old friends we spent quality time with. As we drive away, we are eager to implement back home all we have learned, decide where we are going to plant all the native plants we purchased, and simply refreshed and inspired by our natural world and native plants.


Bettina Darveaux is a plant biologist with a lifelong curiosity and passion for native plants and conservation. A naturalist at heart, she enjoys “botanizing”, hiking, kayaking, bird watching, nature photography, camping, and just about any recreation that brings her outside, especially to the mountains of North Carolina. She currently serves on the NCNPS board of directors and is a member of both the Triad and Triangle chapters.

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