When I first heard Susan Belcher mention the initiative to bring back the Cullowhee lily, I was intrigued. Cullowhee is often referred to as the valley of the lilies, hearkening back to a time when the flower populated the area, but today the plant only grows in a few spots on campus, said Belcher. As a result, the WCU Alumni Association, the Office of the Chancellor and WCU Facilities Management grounds crews are partnering to re-establish the Cullowhee lily in the community, starting with the WCU campus.
Though I studied botany in college and took Jim Horton’s local flora class, I didn’t know the plant – only the stories about it. So I got out my trusty green volume – “Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas” by Radford, Ahles and Bell – and started looking for the species name for the lily in question. Because its index includes common names, I expected to go right to “Cullowhee lily” and find its scientific name. No such luck.
After trying various combinations and reading through the listings for Liliaceae, the lily family, I figured it was time to consult the expert; I e-mailed retired WCU biology professor Dan Pittillo, who, as always, had the answer.
“It’s an amaryllis,” Dan said, when I told him of my fruitless search among the lilies. “Zephyranthes atamasco.” While it’s known as the Cullowhee lily locally, it’s also called zephyr lily and rain lily, Dan said.
As it turns out, Z. atamasco is not native to Western North Carolina, but it certainly was growing in the Cullowhee Valley long before WCU’s forerunner, Robert Lee Madison’s Cullowhee Academy, was established in 1889. The plants, which grow from bulbs, bloom in April to early May. They grow to be about 6 inches tall, and the flowers are about 2 inches in diameter, Dan said.
His theory? Z. atamasco was transplanted and subsequently naturalized here.
“I believe it might have been introduced for medicinal uses by the Cherokees. This is the most likely explanation for this coastal species appearing in our mountain areas,” he said. “It’s mostly found in the coastal plain with a few upper piedmont sites.”
Dan began teaching at WCU in 1966, and he said the plants at that time were growing along the creek in the vicinity of where H.F. Robinson Building is now. Construction of the new section of N.C. 107 and the rerouting of Cullowhee Creek in that area eliminated those flowers, he said. Z. atamasco was also growing up a branch in Cox Cove (now Forest Hills).
How does Dan think the effort to re-establish the flower on campus will turn out?
“It shouldn’t be that hard,” he said. “It needs a place where it won’t be disturbed and weeds won’t crowd it out. All it needs is a moist but not wet flower bed; I think it will do fine.”
With my “what” question answered, I turned to WCU Grounds Superintendent Roger Turk for the “where” and “how” of the plan.
Roger explained that WCU’s Alumni Association will sell the bulbs to its members and others for planting. The proceeds from these sales, once costs are paid, will go into the Association’s scholarship fund. Donations to the lily effort also will support planting the flower on campus as well as the scholarship fund.
He sees the restore-the-lily effort’s benefits as threefold. First, it raises money for scholarships, and second, it provides him with a source of new flowers during a time when state budget cuts make acquiring more plants difficult. It also “reintroduces a plant that was found in greater abundance many years ago in Cullowhee and on campus than it is currently found,” he said.
In Turk’s view, native or not, the effort to bring back the lily is a good thing from any perspective.
“It’s a nostalgic effort with the main purpose of gaining donations for student scholarships,” he said. “Individuals will purchase bulbs through the WCU Alumni Association, and the profits from the sales will go into a scholarship fund. In turn, my staff will install them in color beds on campus.
“It seems like a win-win for everyone to me,” Turk said.
And he’s 100 percent correct. The amaryllis that’s come to be known as the Cullowhee lily was brought here centuries ago, and it apparently thrived. It was flowering in abundance when Madison began the effort to educate mountain children that has resulted in WCU’s emergence as a comprehensive regional university. The flower is as much a part of local heritage as the institution itself.
The thing that appeals to me most about Susan Belcher’s enthusiasm for re-introducing the plant is the fact that it’s an effort to celebrate something that’s unique to Cullowhee.
She talks about “sense of place,” which is a phrase I’ve read a lot in connection with local writers. That notion seemed kind of vague – almost trite – to me, but I think I finally understand it.
It means appreciating where you are and seeking out that which makes it special, rather than trying to remake a place into something it’s not meant to be. Specifically, it means celebrating WCU for what it is instead of disparaging it for what it is not and can never become.
Does it matter that our valley’s lily is a transplant? Not to me. After all, that’s what I am.
Like Robert Madison, I came here when I was around 20 years old and never left. And, along with many of my friends and former professors, after being introduced to a habitat that was perfect for me, I put down roots and remained.