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Petal Power

Flower enthusiasts launch initiative to bring the Cullowhee lily back to the campus and community


The memories and lore surrounding the Cullowhee lily once common on campus have inspired an effort to bring the flower back. Western Carolina alumni, staff and community members have partnered to launch an initiative to raise money to plant the flower on campus and sell the hard-to-find bulbs in the community, with proceeds supporting ongoing care for the plants and the WCU Alumni Scholarship Fund. “In cultivating the lily we are also cultivating our heritage and our students,” said Susan Belcher, wife of Chancellor David O. Belcher and a leader in the initiative.

Western Carolina founder Robert L. Madison reportedly kept a potted Cullowhee lily, which is a white flower with six petals formally called the Zephyranthes atamasca, in his room in Davies Hall. And in a poem published in the 1940 Catamount annual, Madison wrote “In the ‘Valley of the Lilies,’ Lovely vale called ‘Cullowhee,’ In the ‘Valley of the Lilies,’ – Lilies white and fair to see, – Stands a noted institution.” The plant became less common in the valley, however. Just 20 years later, a Cullowhee Garden Club publication reported the only “considerable amount” of Cullowhee lilies were growing on the Cox farm off of Speedwell Road, which was located where WCU’s football field and Ramsey Regional Activity Center are now. Today, the plant grows in only a few spots on campus, said Roger Turk, grounds superintendent. Some speculate the water-loving plant began to disappear from the Cullowhee region when the low valley wetlands were drained during construction.

Chancellor David Belcher, Frances Owl-Smith ’83 and Susan Belcher

Showing a limited edition framed print of the Cullowhee lily are Chancellor David Belcher, Frances Owl-Smith ’83 and Susan Belcher.

Belcher said it was Betty Allen ’68 who planted the seed for the lily revival effort. Allen, past president of the WCU Alumni Association, shared with Belcher an interest in bringing the lily back and suggested the Alumni Association to spearhead the initiative. A committee and subcommittees were formed to work on the effort and are seeking donations to support planting the Cullowhee lily on campus and selling the bulbs to be planted in the community. “Western has such a beautiful campus, and people are excited to be able to help make the Cullowhee lily, which is a piece of our heritage and history, part of the landscape again,” said Allen.

Supporters who give a $50 donation toward planting and maintaining a lily bed on campus will be honored as charter members of the Cullowhee Lily Society. Those who donate $250 will receive a limited edition and numbered framed photo of the Cullowhee lily printed on canvas and signed by Chancellor Belcher. The first bulbs to be planted on campus will be in the Centennial Garden, located near the curve in the road above the Central Plaza fountain. A ceremonial planting will be held Homecoming weekend at the garden at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6. The committee will host booths at Homecoming, at Mountain Heritage Day on Sept. 29 and before the Appalachian State football game Oct. 27 to enable visitors to learn more about the effort, purchase 10 bulbs for $10 to plant, or give directly to support the cause. In addition, the bulbs will be sold Sept. 29-Oct. 31 at partnering businesses, including Bryson Farm Supply and Country Road Farms Nursery & Garden Center in Sylva, Ray’s Florist & Greenhouse in Dillsboro and Tuckasegee Trading Co. in Cullowhee.

Dr. Frances Owl-Smith ’83, president-elect of the Alumni Board of Directors, said she is particularly excited the effort will support scholarships. “A large portion of the profits from the sale of the lily bulbs will benefit the Alumni Scholarship Fund. This cannot be more appreciated at this time of economic stress for our students in need of financial support who want to receive their education at this fine university,” said Owl-Smith.

Elizabeth Paige Jones ’11, sister of WCU master’s degree student Melanie Jones Batchelor ’09, received the alumni scholarship in 2011 and said the assistance made it easier for her to finish her degree in criminal justice. Jones now works as a victim advocate for the Kids Advocacy Resource Effort in Waynesville. “It meant a lot to receive a scholarship supported by Western Carolina students who have graduated and given back – to feel like they believed in me and what I was doing as a student,” said Jones.

To volunteer to assist with the initiative, contact Cindi Magill with the Office of Alumni Affairs at 828.227.7335 or magill@wcu.edu. Direct gifts to the Alumni Association Scholarship also can be made online at give.wcu.edu.

Betty Allen ’68 
Mary Brand Arbaugh ’79
Susan Belcher
Gail Debnam MAEd ’90
Robert Gibson ’87
Myra Grant ’70
Leslie Greer ’90
Peggy Hurt MPA ’89
Julia McManus ’90
Dr. Frances Owl-Smith ’83
Jimmy Ramsey ’73
Marty Ramsey ’85
Rubae Schoen
Zeta Smith
Julie Spiro ’98 
Roger Turk