Cullowhee Articles

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Cullowhee Native Plant Conference

by Eddie Rhoades

I skipped a year and didn’t go to Cullowhee in 1992 after I’d stayed up till 5 am partying in 1991. I wanted my reputation as a guitar picking, partying gardener to die down. And did it work? No!

Gloria Rogers told me a new route which avoids 1285 and spaghetti junction and I drove through some of the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen. I saw lots of clear mountain streams and roadside wildflowers. The only thing I didn’t see on this route was traffic which was fine with me.

lulus_cafeWhen I arrived in Cullowhee, I felt like I had stepped back in time. The atmosphere was so relaxing yet at the same time it was exciting to be around all these people gathered for the common cause of native plants. It was a Who’s Who of gardeners with an army of delegates from Georgia. Cullowhee is not just the place to see and be seen but is “THE” Native Plant Conference of all time. There are a lot of spinoff conferences now in other states but Cullowhee started it all and they are approaching their twentieth consecutive year. Lots of networking and fellowship going on here. Several times during conversations, I thought of a cartoon I’d seen where a large old tree had been cut down and the caption above the tree said “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” It’s funny but it’s serious, this business of protecting our native plants.

This conference, at present, is limited to the first 450 people who return their reservations. It is very inexpensive and includes meals in the cafeteria, dorm rooms and refreshments at breaks. There is an exhibit hall with plant sales, book sales and tee shirt sales going on almost all the time. There were six concurrent speakers on Thursday and six more on Friday. The General Sessions feature such notable speakers as Steve Bender, Jim Wilson, Hal Massie, Dick Bir and J.C. Raulston. On the spur of the moment I volunteered to do a spot called “Plants of Promise” since, on a whim, I had bought along Carolina moonseed, Ogeechee lime, pawpaw and American persimmon plants. Lucky me, I got to follow J.C. Raulston. Friday night we took shuttle busses to a local motel with a swimming pool for our “Regional Networking Session.” The band was made up of members of the Conference, I tried to dance myself to death but they made us leave at 12:15 so we went back to the dorms and I got my guitar and played and sang at an area called The Pines till 3 am at the traditional party after the party. We had lots of fun and you always learn something at these events.

The general underlying theme was that propagating, promoting and planting native plants was a moral issue. We, as gardeners, nurserymen, garden communicators and landscapers have an ethical responsibility to make the public aware of the many native plants available and their virtues such as their beauty and the fact they are adapted to our soil and climate. No one is saying to use native plants exclusively but to become more acquainted with them and seek them out. I agree with what Sam Jones says in “Native Shrubs and Woody Vines of the Southeast.” “Due to increasing population growth and development some species may survive only in a garden environment. At one point the native flora was best left untouched but with increased encroachment of highways, housing and commercial development the nurseryman and gardener may actually help perpetuate a species by rescuing it from the path of progress.”

Please don’t get the idea that “native” means untended or weedy. There are plenty of these amazing plants that will fit into even the most formal of landscapes. We need to bring these plants into our yards and gardens so that they can be protected and perpetuated.

Towards the end of the program we were told there would be a tee shirt contest for next year. Oh boy, a tee shirt contest! This sounds like great fun. Come to find out it had nothing to do with women or water only a contest to see who can come up with the best silk screen design to go on next year’s tee shirts. Shucks! Double dang.

Truly, I had one of the best times of my life and will stand out in my memory for combining my two great loves – plants and music.

For more information and to get on the mailing list, contact:

Bobby Hensley
Office of Continuing Education
Cullowhee, NC 28723
ph (828) 227-7397

Here is a sampling of our native plants you may want to try:

  • Trees – sourwood, sasafrass, musclewood, chokeberry, silverbell, yellowwood, pawpaw and persimmon.
  • Shrubs – Beautyberry, azalea, fothergilla, Virginia sweetspire, blueberry, anise, mountain laurel and native azaleas.
  • Flowers – phlox, monarda, coneflower, coreopsis, butterfly weed, columbine, ironweed and Joe Pye weed.
  • Vines – Coral woodbine, crossvine, climbing hydrangea and Carolina Jessamine.
  • Groundcovers – Allegheny spurge, wintergreen, ferns and dwarf crested iris.

Notes from Cullowhee

by Eddie Rhoades

I think most of you have heard about Cullowhee. It is the legendary native plant conference held once a year at Western Carolina University. I have been there so many times I’ve lost count. This past time I asked myself why I keep coming back and more importantly, why does everyone else keep coming back? When you narrow your focus to native plants, it would seem that there would be only so many speakers you could have before there would be a certain element of repetition; I prefer to call it “reinforcing my memory.” And most importantly, the general underlying theme of the conference is one that always bears repeating: that propagating, promoting and planting native plants is a moral issue. We, as nurserymen, garden communicators and landscapers have an ethical responsibility to make the public aware of the many native plants available, along with their virtues such as their beauty and their adaptability to our soil and climate. Native plants can be incorporated into virtually any landscape design and will fit into even the most formal of gardens. No one is saying to use native plants exclusively, but to become more acquainted with them and to seek them out. By bringing them into our yards and gardens they can be protected and perpetuated.

The Cullowhee Conference has had some great speakers over the years: Dick Bir, J. C. Raulston, Jim Wilson, Plato Touliatos, Hal Massie and many more. This year the keynote speaker was the renowned plantsman and author C. Ritchie Bell. From these speakers, I may learn about a single plant, as when Hal Massie spoke on moss gardening, or I may learn about the entire planet, as when Dan Pittillo told us that eons ago all the land was one mass called Gondwanaland.

Not only do I get to see some great slides of plants and plant colonies, I get to see these plants live at the Plant Sale which goes on simultaneously with the conference. This year was the first time I purchased several books at the Book Sale. For my daughter Mindi, who is an artist, I bought Women of Flowers by Jack Kramer. It is a tribute to Victorian women illustrators. Mindi loved it.

The atmosphere at Cullowhee is great. We’re surrounded by mountains, and everything is on campus within easy walking distance. We eat in the school cafeteria and sleep in dorms. I have come to realize that one of the main reasons I go is for the fellowship. I am among other garden groupies and can freely socialize with authors, landscape architects, designers, nurserymen and home gardeners. After the daytime sessions, the first night’s activity is contra line dancing, which is a type of square dancing. The next night, we always have a band that plays rock and waltzes. I always carry my guitar along and either play at “The Pines” or in the dorm lobby. Pat Stone of Green Prints even joined in one night with his guitar. When it’s time to go home again, I look around and realize that most of the attendees are familiar faces to me – all gathered once again at Cullowhee under the umbrella of a love for native plants.

Ramblin’ Rhoades

by Eddie Rhoades

The 14th Annual Native Plant Symposium at Cullowhee, N.C. has come and gone. Some folks may think we’re a bunch of plant fanatics even going so far as to call us cruel names. No matter, these epithets are short-sighted because we know our cause is just. No one has ever said to plant ONLY native plants. A lot of plants and animals are on the verge of extinction and it’s all due to the pressure put on them from mankind. What is needed is a national population control policy.

Better yet, make that a world-wide planetary population control policy. Ask yourself this question.. “How many people does this planet need?” It’s true we’re the dominant species on the planet. I think this is partly because we can and do eat almost anything. Are we not the animal equivalent of KUDZU ?

Animals naturally live in forests and wooded areas and these areas are becoming smaller and smaller due to development which is caused by our ever-increasing population. There is less habitat for animals and there are NO corridors of movement for these animas. Animals used to roam far and wide but now they encounter fenced in yards, streets, roads, and highways. How can the poor animals establish a range or increase his genetic pool if he can’t travel from point A to point B without getting run over?

Plants are in the same predicament. Almighty bulldozers and chainsaws are constantly clearing land for some new development. How many new shopping malls do we need? Of course, I must give the developer some credit. He does put down grass, junipers and Bradford pears in his wake.

Imagine if every Bradford pear was a fruiting pear and every juniper was a blueberry, every red tip photinia a plum tree. What an abundance of food we would have. And about that grass: grass is a monoculture (exclusive of other plants) and normally requires high maintenance in the form of fertilizer which pollutes our ground water, it is watered with drinking-quality water, and it must be mowed which requires an engine that pollutes the environment THE SAME AS A CAR.

So stop and think where you fit into this whole scheme of things, use the kinder, gentler native plants in your yard and garden. Think globally and act locally.

Native Plant Conference – Cullowhee, NC 1996

by Eddie Rhoades

ivan_tatumOnce again the tag team of Eddie Rhoades and Ivan Tatum (shown at left with some of his fan club members), the Mutt and Jeff of the garden world, headed to Cullowhee, NC for the 13th (as of this writing) Annual Native Plant Conference.

We hopped into my $300 car in the wee hours of the morning. Once we got on I-575 it was only 2 left turns and two right turns until there we stood on campus. Once you park your car you don’t need it any more. Everything is within easy walking distance. There were general sessions to attend in the auditorium which holds 450 people- so that is currently the limit of attendees, concurrent sessions where you could pick from exciting topics, a book sale of more gardening books than you could look through and a plant sale featuring native plants, naturally. Then there’s always the networking sessions. Networking is a technical term for “PARTY”. Each night we have a dance with a live band performing. The first night is contra line dancing and the second is Rock and Waltzes.

I learned a lot while I was there:

I learned that the debate rages on about native versus exotic – as trying to determine exactly what the term “native” means, and that you could often precede the term exotic with the word “invasive” as in kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, privet, autumn olive and others. Defining native plants isn’t easy but let’s just say we’re talking about plants that normally occur in a geographic and climatic range before the white man stole this land from the Indians. Let the keepers of lists refine it even further if they must (and they will). When you are about the business of promoting native plants you are conversely involved in opposing invasive exotics. Even good nurseries sometimes sell bad plants. Perhaps they could adopt this credo: If you know a plant is invasive, don’t grow it, don’t sell it and don’t give it away. This applies not only to nurseries but to individuals. It may never have occurred to you that other countries are having problems with introduced plants that are running rampant so please take a look at the attachment at the end of this article about how Australia is dealing with this problem.

I learned that Hal Mossie, oops! that’s Hal Massie, is the premier speaker on mosses in the world – mixing information with entertainment for one of the best presentations at this conference. The very best presentation had to belong to J. C. Raulston who appeared in a Liberace type outfit and gave a rapid-fire presentation filled with profound thoughts and quotable quotes.

I learned that a lot of people, many in the trade, are overly concerned with how Roundup might effect the environment. It is safer on your soil than table salt or aspirin. Maybe I shouldn’t fault them for being suspicious or concerned, after all, we had been assured that kudzu controlled erosion and was a good cattle feed Plus it wasn’t that long ago that homeowners could purchase DDT to spray anything and everything. I might add that we’re still at it, we just can’t purchase DDT.

I always enjoy this Native Plant Conference. The scenery is beautiful with the clear blue skies and white fluffy clouds surrounded by majestic mountains. But this place just wouldn’t be the same without the people. People like Larry Lowman, who always has new and interesting cultivars of native plants to show us and who believes so strongly in the concept of “native” that he dresses like one. I always expect to hear Larry say “KEMOSABE” which, come to find out, means “WHITE IDIOT”.

The staff at Cullowhee has always been wonderful but I understand that some members of the Steering Committee never actually hired on, they were just out here picking blackberries and rabbit hunting when they built this place around them.

I’ll never forget the time I was sitting at the breakfast table with the Steering Committee of the people who started this whole thing when Paula Refi came up and stood over me and said “Eddie, you were wonderful last night” You could have heard a pin drop as all conversation stopped and all eyes turned my way. When Paula walked away I explained that she had meant I was wonderful at playing guitar and singing the night before….. I should have just kept my mouth shut.

When the programs are all over and done and the crowd gets smaller and smaller until Ivan and I are standing there practically alone, I don’t know about Ivan, but I’m a little bit sad to see it all end but glad to have been a part of it and looking forward to doing it again next year.

Eddie Rhoades
Cobb County Georgia

Garden Plants Under the Spotlight – An Australian strategy for invasive garden plants
(Microsoft Word 97 document – 192kb file size)

Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council:

An annual newsletter is published about the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference. The editor is Deanne Eversmeyer.

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