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Plant Camp: Botanizing in Southern Appalachia

The Cullowhee Conference has been bringing together native plant professionals and enthusiasts from the entire Southeastern United States for the past twenty-six years. Lovingly referred to as  “Plant Camp,” the conference runs from Tuesday to Saturday, and features fieldtrips, working sessions, and lectures given by experts in the field.

Soon after being hired as an intern at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens (NCBG), I was notified by my boss that one great thing NCBG summer interns often do is go to the Cullowhee native plants conference. I applied for a scholarship in mid-April, and honestly didn’t think too much about it for another three months. But upon arrival in western North Carolina, I was in for a treat. The website says it best. Cullowhee is “an ideal location for anyone with interests in the biodiversity and beauty of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.”

I attended workshops on topics ranging from medicinal plants to entomology for gardeners. My fellow interns learned about lichens, water conservation gardening, and composting from Captain Compost himself. We went on day-long excursions into the surrounding mountains with people who know the ins and outs of the area and its plants.

For me, the most exciting part of Cullowhee was building a wetland one afternoon at a local elementary school. Along with around thirty other adults from the conference, we were paired with elementary-school children. Our mission: to plant native water-loving plants in the recently backhoed 40×40 crater.

We were led by two humble, energetic, and knowledgable men–John Byrd and Tom Biebighauser. Byrd is a retired biology teacher, and a leader in the Clinch River Environmental Studies Organization. Biebighauser, who works for the U.S. Forest Service,  has built over 1200 wetlands with children, volunteers, and teachers, and has learned how to build them quickly (in around ONE day) and cheaply (usually around $1000).

These men have helped many schools across the nation to adopt the Wonders of Wetlands curriculum, which gets our children (and educators) outdoors and involved in their surrounding environment.

For me, the Cullowhee Conference was important in three ways. It brought native plant enthusiasts together and to western NC. It gave us the opportunity to engage with people and the surrounding environment. And it allowed us to share the kinds of ideas and inspiration that fuels projects such as Byrd’s and Beibighauser’s.

Laura Stephenson is a recent environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focusing in environmental and community health. She is currently an intern at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens.

Posted on: August 11, 2010, 9:01 am Category: Profiles in Sustainability Education, The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , ,

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