The memories and lore surrounding a white flower with six petals once so common in the Cullowhee valley that it was called the Cullowhee lily have inspired Western Carolina University alumni and community members to bring the flower back.
The WCU Alumni Association, the Office of the Chancellor and WCU Facilities Management grounds crews are partnering to reestablish the Cullowhee lily in the community, starting with the WCU campus. Organizers of the initiative, which is still in early planning stages, are seeking additional partners and supporters, and plan to link the effort to the Alumni Association Scholarship Fund, said Susan Belcher at a luncheon held Wednesday, March 28, as part of the celebration of her husband’s installation as WCU’s 11th chancellor.
“Cullowhee” is a Cherokee word that some believe translates to mean “valley of the lilies” and hearkens back to a time when the flower populated the area, said Belcher in announcing the new initiative. To celebrate the Cullowhee community and sense of place, Belcher had hoped WCU could incorporate the lilies into installation décor, only to learn the plant was no longer common in the area. Today, the lily, which usually flowers in late April or early May, grows in only a few spots on campus, said Roger Turk, grounds superintendent.
“We started wondering what happened to the Cullowhee lily,” said Belcher. “David and I fell in love with Cullowhee and the area, and we both are dedicated to preserving and deepening the sense of place here.”
Belcher said it was Betty Allen, a WCU alumna from Lincolnton and past-president of the WCU Alumni Association, who planted the seed for the lily effort in one of their conversations. Allen linked the lily and its scarceness in the area to a desire to bring it back, and suggested the WCU Alumni Association as an organization that could drive the initiative, said Belcher.
They uncovered references from 1940 that suggested the Cullowhee lily was in the valley still at that time. The flower graces the cover the 1940 Catamount yearbook and is mentioned in a poem in the publication by Western Carolina College founder Robert L. Madison. The second stanza described the lily: “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 lily was so precious to Madison that he kept a potted lily in his room in Davies Hall, according to a Cullowhee Garden Club report written 20 years later and accessible in Hunter Library’s Special Collections.
The report shared some of the history of the flower and noted it as a “natural choice” for the club’s official flower – one members hoped to incorporate into a memorial planting for Madison. The article went on to say that the only “considerable amount” of Cullowhee lilies growing in the area at the time was on the Cox farm off of Speedwell Road, which was located where WCU’s football field and Ramsey Center are today.
Allen is currently helping recruit supporters and partners for the effort and said she is encouraged by those who have expressed interest in taking part.
“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,” she said.