Why Natives?

IMG_7917Robert Wyatt during the 2018 Moss field trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Why Natives?

As the Steering Committee finishes dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” to finalize the agenda for this summer’s conference, there’s a plenary talk we want to let you know about. It is sure to be one of the highlights of what is shaping up to be a very exciting and compelling schedule. The plenary is titled “Why Should We Plant Natives?”, and will be given by Robert Wyatt, a former Cullowhee Conference director and program chair and Professor Emeritus of Botany and Ecology at the University of Georgia.

Robert will begin his talk by pointing out that the Native Plant Movement continues to grow and mature, as more and more people come to recognize the benefits of landscaping and gardening in a more ecologically sustainable way. Wearing the hat of an ecologist and population geneticist, he’ll explain why it’s important to listen to the principles for using native plants advocated by leaders in the field such as Doug Tallamy. Tallamy, as native plant enthusiasts know, has reinvigorated the Native Plant Movement with his focus on the broader role of native plants in food webs. And, as veterans of Cullowhee are aware, Doug has not only been a popular speaker at our conference but received the 2013 Tom Dodd, Jr. Award of Excellence, which the conference grants to native plant leaders for their work in one or more native plant categories. As Robert makes his points, he’ll try to clear up confusion about a term that might be difficult for the casual grower to understand – “variety” in botany versus horticulture – and explain why we don’t need another term – “nativar” – that has crept into the hobbyist and professional lexicon.

From there, Robert will delve into some less-talked about and less-understood aspects of using native plants in home landscapes. One of those will be that some native plant advocates have overstated the benefits of natives, which has led some in the ornamental horticulture industry to respond to customer demand for a steady stream of new native cultivars, which is where the term nativar comes from. Here, Robert will shift into attack mode. Look for him to point out that native cultivars in which stamens and pistils have been converted into extra petals provide no pollen and nectar to feed native pollinators, produce no fruits or seeds to feed birds, mammals or other frugivores and that cultivars of new color variants have reduced palatability to insects that normally feed on them and reduced attractiveness to pollinators. Robert will echo the warnings of Tallamy and others that the failure of these cultivars to fill the role in the food web that their ancestors have for millions of years could wreak havoc on natural ecosystems. Robert will also issue a warning of his own: More research is needed to determine which cultivars of native plants are able to fill the role of wild species and which are not.

Native plants are a topic Robert has been passionate about since the seventh grade, which was when he realized that he wanted to be a botanist and study native plants in natural areas. “An influential teacher at Statesville High School inspired me and challenged me in General and Advanced Biology,” he recalled. He responded to that challenge by earning an undergraduate degree in Botany from UNC-Chapel Hill where he was advised by C. Ritchie Bell and Albert E. Redford and took courses that emphasized native plants. “I worked on the most beautiful native plant in the world (butterfly weed) for my Ph.D. in Botany at Duke University. My original interest in plant systematics moved to ecology and population genetics under the influence of Janis Antonovics. I have always been committed to preserving natural areas and protecting rare and endangered species. So, my dedication to the Native Plant Movement has deep and long lasting roots.”

Robert has served the Native Plant Movement in many capacities. He has been the Executive Director Emeritus of the Highlands Biological Station and has been a teacher in several areas of organismal biology: population ecology, plant reproductive ecology, ecological genetics, plant variation and evolution, and plant systematics, among others. His main area of research has been in the field of ecology and evolution of plant reproduction, with a special focus on unusual systems such as milkweeds and orchids, analyzing their unique adaptations by studying native plants under natural conditions. A Guggenheim Fellowship enabled him to publish a book on this subject titled Ecology and Evolution of Plant Reproduction.

Moss field trip

In addition to the plenary, Robert and his wife, Ann Stoneburner, formerly a research biologist at the University of Georgia, will lead a moss field trip on Wednesday, July 17. If you don’t already have a field guide for mosses, a good one to take on the walk is Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians by McKnight et al. (2013). It’s in the Princeton Field Guide series and costs about $20. Here is a link to a story on Mother Nature Network about last year’s moss field trip https://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/what-i-learned-moss-walk .

Key dates

A reminder about key dates for making plans to attend the 2019 Cullowhee Native Plant Conference:

  • April 1: Registration opens (tentative; if this changes we’ll let you know in a future post).
  • July 3: Last date to register for on-campus accommodations.
  • July 11: Last date to register for the conference.
  • July 17-20: The 2019 conference.

Important Dates to Remember


2015 Cullowhee Native Plant Conference attendees get ready to attend their field trips. Photo courtesy of WCU Educational Outreach.

From the Steering Committee:

It’s January, and for many people, that means two things: Highlighting important dates on their calendar for the coming year and making New Year’s resolutions.

When it comes to important dates – and what, of course, could be more important than Whee? – here are some days you’ll want to highlight for making plans to attend the 2019 Cullowhee Native Plant Conference:

  • April 1: Registration opens (tentative; if this changes we’ll let you know in a future post).
  • July 3: Last date to register for on-campus accommodations.
  • July 11: Last date to register for the conference.
  • July 17-20: The 2019 conference.

One especially important thing to remember about the registration process is that field trips fill up quickly. As such, it’s always a good idea to register as soon as possible after your registration email hits your inbox to ensure you get in on the field trip of your choice!

Under the heading of New Year’s Resolutions, think about this: Long-time Whee attendees remember that ‘back in the day’ they rushed to return registration forms either the day they received them or the day after. They did this because so many native plant lovers attended the conference that they were concerned the conference would fill up and they would be left out if they didn’t register right away.

That’s when the conference was held at the old University Center. “We moved for the simple availability of space,” said Bobby Hensley, WCU’s Associate Director of Continuing Education who does such a great job of hosting the conference year after year. Even though the University Center has been renovated, Bobby said it’s still not suitable for our event. He gave several reasons for that: Ramsey can accommodate many times more people, plus everything is in one building at Ramsey.

“I’ve “heard” that numbers were closer to 500 in years past, but I don’t recall it breeching 375 since I started in ‘01,” he added. “There were cut-offs only because so much filled up quickly.” There are still caps on campus accommodations, field trips and workshops, but Bobby said that conference attendance itself is not technically limited.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get our attendance back to where it once was? To help make that a possibility, think about making one of your New Year’s Resolutions a commitment to invite a friend or colleague to attend the 2019 conference and join the

Whee family. Perhaps that’s a first-time attendee. Maybe it’s someone who’s been on hiatus you could welcome back. Regardless, let’s all try to grow the family!

You could even take that resolution a step further through your local garden club or favorite native plant society. Ask the group’s calendar editor to put the above dates on the society’s or club’s calendars and ask if you can make announcements about Whee at meetings of your favorite plant groups.

Share Whee memories

Here’s an invitation to Whee veterans: If you attended Whee ‘back in the day’ when it was at the University Center, please share your favorite memories in the comments section at the end of this post.

Agenda update

The Steering Committee is working with Bobby and his team to nail down the last few speaker commitments so we can finalize the conference agenda. We’re in the final stages of doing that, but one agenda item we are comfortable in sharing now will be a main stage panel discussion by members of several key land trusts in the Southeast. One of the topics they will discuss is how to apply for a conservation easement. One thing you may be surprised to know about conservation easements is that you don’t have to own a large tract of land to apply for an easement. As an example, one of the land trusts that has committed to the conference has granted an easement to slightly less than half an acre. The key qualification to be granted an easement is not size but conservation value. We know that you’ll have questions, and we’re building time into the schedule for a Q&A.

We’ll share more information in future posts about the agenda as we work with WCU on the final touches. In the meantime, enjoy the winter garden!

Holiday Greetings

24955625_10159652815670134_7233388714123423021_o (1)Witchhazel sports a winter coat of snow from an early December storm. (Photo by Adam Bigelow).

Holiday greetings from the Steering Committee!

As if on cue to add to the festive mood of the season, a snowstorm several weeks before Christmas blanketed the Cullowhee area with one-10 inches of heavy, wet powder. The amount varied by elevation, with the Western Carolina campus getting between one and two inches.

“We get a December snow here not too infrequently, but this storm was bigger than normal,” said WCU botany professor and Steering Committee member Dr. Kathy Mathews. “The surrounding counties got a lot of snow! Many areas to the east and south, such as Asheville, Highlands and Transylvania County, got as much as two feet.”

Through it all, from snowy Cullowhee to the various locations of Steering Committee members, planning continues for next summer’s July 17-20 conference. Program Chair Dawn Sherry is leading the Committee’s effort to secure commitments from invited speakers, and WCU’s Associate Director of Continuing Education Bobby Hensley is working with the committee to secure photos of plenary invitees and a summary of their talks. He’ll use these for marketing emails as we get closer to the conference.

When we get into the New Year and the agenda begins taking shape, we’ll start telling you about some of the confirmed speakers. In the meantime, at holiday parties and gatherings take the time to share news of the conference with your gardening friends. Learning about the conference just might be one of the best and lasting gifts they could receive!

As a gift to yourself, during some holiday downtime consider visiting this site: Ecoregional Revegetation Application (ERA). The ERA is a draft online database of locally adapted and appropriate plant species. It was developed by botanists and ecologists at the Forest Service, Federal Highway Administration, universities and other institutions. The ERA is meant to assist highway planners, land managers and others to select appropriate native plant species for revegetation projects, but Kathy says it also is potentially a really neat tool for the general public as well as plant professionals. She points out that all the plants listed are said to be commercially available and can be used not only for habitat restoration but also for pollinator enhancement in EPA-designated ecoregions.

From Kathy: “I tried out the tool for the Blue Ridge ecoregion where I live in western North Carolina. This ecoregion appears to span from North Carolina up to Pennsylvania, so I wondered about its actual utility for any specific location. When I selected the Blue Ridge ecoregion, I was given a list of “Workhorse/Pollinator” species that could be used in a landscaping project. Some of the plants listed definitely don’t occur in the southern Blue Ridge (e.g., Picea glauca, white spruce). But most of the plants seemed appropriate for my area, and lots of useful information came along with each species recommendation, such as flower color, moisture requirements and pollinator value (including pollinator larval host plants). There were many native flowering species listed I don’t usually think about, such as Silphium terebinthinaceum, prairie rosinweed, that are said to have high pollinator value (although, again, maybe this isn’t actually native to the Blue Ridge).”

The tool is still under development, and Kathy added that there are several caveats to its usefulness. For instance, she said, some plants listed may be considered weedy and not desirable to plant (such as Prunella vulgaris, all-heal). “However,” she added, “knowledgeable plant people can definitely use their judgment in selecting specific plants off the list, and it sure is a handy tool for coming up with potential revegetation species lists.”

Whether you are a plant professional such as a landscape architect or a backyard gardener devoted to native plants, the Steering Committees hopes you’ll find the tool useful. We also hope you are having a joyous holiday season.

Fall in the Mountains…

45657525_10161005292420134_1574758684020441088_nAs a person who follows Adam Bigelow’s Facebook page commented, the clouds above this barn in the mountains near the WCU campus give the image the feel of a Van Gogh painting. (Photo by Adam Bigelow).

From the Steering Committee:

Greetings to Cullowhee Native Plant Conference devotees from the magical land of ‘Whee, where the leaves turned colors this fall that we’ll never see in July!

Conference attendees who don’t live in the western North Carolina mountains may be interested to know that the peak fall foliage color in Cullowhee was quite late this year, based on observations during the past 15 years by Steering Committee member and WCU botany professor, Dr. Kathy Mathews. This year, fall colors peaked in Cullowhee on the last weekend of October (around Oct. 27), a full two weeks later than the historical average peak date of the second week of October. It was also an extremely short color season, as the leaves have mostly dropped off the trees.

What caused the late fall color? All we can be sure of is correlation: The first frost date in Cullowhee this year was October 22 (according to AccuWeather.com), and colors are known to peak around five days after the first frost in an area. Prior to that date, the temperatures were unusually warm, with nighttime temperatures the previous week ranging from 40-59 degrees Fahrenheit (the average is 51). This was 10 degrees warmer on average than historical night temperatures for the same dates, which range from 40-42 degrees F (the average is 41)! Since leaves need cool temperatures to start changing color, in addition to shorter day lengths, the chlorophyll took longer to degrade and reveal the yellow and orange carotenoid pigments, and the red anthocyanin pigments took longer to develop.

What does this mean for leaf peepers? Dr. Mathews has been keeping track of fall color change on individual trees on the WCU campus for the past five years, and in that time has noticed a shift toward later fall color change. So, this may be a trend that will result in a new fall season for western North Carolina starting in late October and lasting for about two weeks. Despite the delay in color change, it was still a beautiful fall!

As we transition from fall into Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday season, images of color in Cullowhee are something we can all be thankful for no matter where we live. At the top of the Steering Committee’s list of the many things we are thankful for are you, the native plant lovers who attend and support the conference year after year; Bobby Hensley and his staff, who do such a great job of hosting us every summer; and the conference itself, which for 35 years has done such an admirable job in fulfilling its purpose of increasing the knowledge and interest in Southeastern native plant species. The year-in and year-out effectiveness of the conference is borne out by this simple fact: It is the longest-running continuous conference Western Carolina hosts.

In 2019, the conference, which is set for July 17-20, will mark its 36th year. Please invite a friend, co-worker or, better yet, both! Not only will they be sure to thank you, they’ll have something extra to be thankful for next Thanksgiving!

We hope you are enjoying the blog and are finding it both informative and inspirational. It’s as new to us in writing it as it is to you in receiving an email alert about the latest post! Our goal is to use these posts to keep you updated about the conference agenda and other aspects of the conference. Let us know how we are doing. We welcome your ideas and suggestions about how we can make each issue useful to you.

We’ve steadily gained followers since launching the blog. To help us continue to do that, please ask the membership officer of your native plant society and/or garden club to send the blog url to their members. Please also continue to share it with your gardening friends and professional colleagues. The most effective way we can continue to broaden the interest in the conference and the number of attendees is by sharing each post with fellow gardeners, landscape architects, native plant enthusiasts, students and academics. It’s worth repeating from last month’s post that the most frequent way that new attendees hear about the conference is from others who love native plants.

Planning for the conference is continuing throughout the holidays. The Steering Committee’s immediate goal is to have verbal commitments from speakers, field trip leaders and vendors by the end of the year. Once we have those, we can finalize the schedule and start letting you know about the next great lineup of speakers.

One schedule highlight we can share now is that there will be a plenary session on conservation easements. The plan is for that session to be a panel discussion that will include the leaders of several land trusts from throughout the Southeast. Among the topics they will discuss will be how to apply for an easement. One of the things you will learn in this discussion is that you don’t have to be a large landowner to qualify for an easement. In fact, one of the land trusts that has committed to participate has granted an easement to a parcel of slightly less than half an acre.

We’re also working on ramping up the conference’s social media presence. There will be much more to report on this front as those plans materialize.

In the meantime, enjoy Thanksgiving with friends, family and those who are special to you.

Note to followers of the blog: More images of fall color in Cullowhee are available on the Facebook page of Steering Committee member and WCU graduate Adam Bigelow: www.facebook.com/adam.bigelow.3


43462765672_6eff008fc2_zPhoto from last summer’s Moss Walk Field Trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Steering Committee starts new blog about the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference

From the Steering Committee

Welcome to a new blog about the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference. The Steering Committee decided at its October planning meeting that this would be an excellent form of communication to promote the conference and keep you updated about next summer’s agenda. We hope you will find the posts helpful in making your plans to attend the conference and that you will share them with your friends and colleagues. WCU’s marketing research shows that one of the primary ways new attendees hear about the conference is from their friends and people they work with. So, please encourage people you know who love native plants to follow the blog and share the url on your social media posts. Look for updates the first week of each month.

We’d also like to hear your suggestions for a blog name. We chose the name PlantCampNews, but that’s not set in stone. We welcome your ideas if you have a suggestion for another name! There will be a section for comments at the end of each post. Please also use this section to tell us what type of content will be most helpful to you. We welcome your feedback.

Regarding feedback, please know that the Steering Committee starts off its annual planning sessions (we meet each October to plan the next summer’s conference) with a deep dive into your comments on the post-conference survey. Again this year, we listened carefully to what you had to say and heard you loud and clear. We are your advocates and are working closely with the WCU staff to make significant improvements in the conference based on your suggestions. While many of those are still developing and it is too early to talk about them, the Steering Committee and WCU have already begun taking steps to improve your conference experience in the areas of recycling and vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free meal options. Here’s an overview of those steps:


We had the opportunity to meet with WCU Director of Catering Jim Davis. He was very responsive to your concerns about reducing conference-generated waste. Jim said WCU will provide waste receptacles next summer that will allow conference goers to separate waste into food waste, compostable waste, etc. The food waste is taken to a local pig farm and used as feed. We also asked about the possibility of using silverware and dishes that could be washed and re-used, rather than using plastic utensils and plates. While Jim was receptive to this idea, we don’t know yet if this is a change that can be implemented.

Meal services

In response to many comments and questions about vegetarian and vegan options, we were told that catering staff will provide vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free meals to people who request them on their registration form. The university has committed to paying more attention to gluten-free sides, as well.

A tip to registrants who want vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free options: Ask the catering staff for them as you go through the service lines. Do not be bashful! This is important because the catering staff does not always put out these options for general consumption. As an example, vegetarian burgers were available last year at the picnic, but some folks did not realize they had to request them from the catering staff. We plan to make this point in announcements from the main stage at the start of the 2019 conference.

Attendees also made it clear in the post-conference survey that they prefer a hearty breakfast. Consequently, we will bring back the breakfast menu featuring eggs and bacon and additional fruit. Breakfast will be served in the residence hall or on the Ramsey concourse rather than in the cafeteria due to a large conference that will meet at the same time as ours.

New coffee vendor

Jim also said that WCU would allow the conference to source its own coffee. Consequently, we plan to use a company called Counter Culture Coffee to provide coffee next summer. In addition to coffee at breakfast, we’ve also requested that coffee be available at breaks.

A challenge for the 2019 conference

As a reminder, next summer’s conference will be July 17-20, 2019. Invitations have been sent to speakers, workshop and field trip leaders and vendors. Once invitations are confirmed, we’ll share highlights of the conference lineup in a future post. In the meantime, Pete Schubert, immediate past conference director, has a challenge for all conference attendees: Invite at least one friend or colleague to attend next summer’s conference, either for the first time or the 10th time. Message from Pete: “Conference attendees are our native plant ambassadors, working on all levels to raise awareness and educate decision makers about the benefits of our native plants. We are the choir and we need to grow our voices.”

Steering Committee update

The committee welcomed new members Jeff Jackson, Preston Montague and Geoffrey Neal to the committee. Jeff will be responsible for food services, Preston for scholarships and Geoffrey for leadership in several areas. The committee also thanked outgoing members for their services: Robert Wyatt, a two-time conference director; Jesse Turner, who was instrumental in having the conference approved for Continuing Education Credits (CEUs) for registered landscape architects and helping to coordinate field trips; and Olivia Brakenbury, who managed scholarships.

Steering Committee members, their areas of responsibility and email addresses are:
John Magee, conference director john@john-magee.com
Pete Schubert, immediate past conference director schubyos@gmail.com
Dawn A. Sherry, program chair dawn.sherry@mga.edu
Adam Bigelow, field trips bigelownc@gmail.com
Sharon Day, vendors sharonday302@gmail.com
Jeff Jackson, food services lowcountryroots@aol.com
Peter Loos, Tom Dodd Jr. Award (committee chair) slycy79@yahoo.com
Kathy Mathews, WCU Biology Department kmathews@email.wcu.edu
Preston Montague, scholarships naturalistnc@gmail.com
George Morris, Tom Dodd Jr. Award (committee member) and entertainment juncus215@gmail.com
Geoffrey Neal, various leadership roles geoffrey@email.unc.edu
Tom Oder, publicity toder@wwediting.com
Jeff Zahner, field trips coordinator coolplants@hotmail.com

WCU contact:
Bobby Hensley, Division of Educational Outreach hensley@wcu.edu

Stay tuned for December’s post!

For more information about the conference, visit nativeplants.wcu.edu.