Cullowhee Conference Returns

August 17, 2022

Photo: Cowee Mound captured by Kody Stanley during a conference field trip. Cowee was an important center of 18th-century Cherokee life and the site of many brutal attacks by British and American forces during the American Revolution.


Day to day, hour to hour, a garden is never still. It’s possible to learn something new there every day, and it doesn’t have to be a solitary pursuit. Both lifelong learning and staying connected to interests and friends are so crucial to brain health and quality of life. Thankfully one of the best conferences in our field made its comeback last month.

The Cullowhee Native Plant Conference took place over three days at Western Carolina University, after cancellation due to COVID-19 in 2020 and a fully virtual event last year. Our Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel attended for the tenth time, gardener Kody Stanley experienced his first, and both brought back news and insights from the world of green.

The three-day event is designed to increase interest and education for professionals and home gardeners alike. With field trips and lectures, it showcases the knowledge and findings of many of the leading experts in the country. Field trip options included hikes on Black Balsam Knob, Andrews Bald or Big Ridge Preserve; tours of Panthertown Valley, grassland and moss communities or the WCU Herbarium; and even a birding trip and a guided forest therapy session. Kody took a canoe trip on Little Tennessee River exploring an area rich in Cherokee history.

A tour of Southern Highlands Reserve was on the field trip menu as well, and we enjoyed showing fellow researchers and enthusiasts our work. We’ve been welcoming conference attendees to the garden for many years now, and it’s lots of fun to swap stories and ideas with them.

Much of the news from the conference was grim. The decline of monarch butterfly, bird and insect populations due to loss of habitat was disheartening. “There are some scary statistics as far as where we’ll be in 50 years,” Eric said.

Many of the sessions emphasized working with nature and recognizing the interconnectedness of its players. “It was a reiteration of things we’re already practicing as far as a symbiotic relationship with nature and letting nature work itself out with native plants,” Kody said. “We’re just here as a helper.”

Highlights for Eric included a moss workshop and a session on fungi. “We’re learning they’re so important in connecting different ecosystems, and they can answer a lot of questions and needs as far as our health and plant health and can even a substitute for pesticides,” he said.

Other topics included moths, river cane, pollinator and native plant gardens for the home, and American chestnut tree restoration.

Kody said the experience is inspiring for anyone, no matter what level of knowledge they may hold. “You leave and want to tell everybody else they should go too.”