In 1984 the Tennessee Valley Authority had $14,000 available for outreach projects in the Southeast. Half the money was used to train first responders in white water river rescue. It is believed that this ongoing training has reduced fatalities on our rivers by fifty percent over the years. The other $7000 was directed to underwrite a “Plant Utilization” meeting that has become an annual event that has changed the American landscape.
It was decided that the participants would gather at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. to hold costs down by staying in dorms and eating in the cafeteria. There were 127 attendees of this first Landscaping with Native Plants Conference and the enthusiasm and information shared each year since has made history. It became known simply as The Cullowhee Conference.
Bob Farmer, TVA biologist, had been growing native species with standard nursery techniques in the early eighties. At the time native plants were such a small portion of the commercial market that they attracted little attention. Bob was giving plants away to the Chamber of Commerce to get the public interested. Most of the information about native plants was circulating within the confines of the academic community. Leo Collins, Dan Pittillo and Jim Horton decided to create a forum for professors, growers, designers and consumers where everybody is a teacher. The enthusiasm of the pioneers of the native plant movement would unite individual voices in the wilderness into a chorus with significant economic and ecological impact. The combination of field trips, workshops, lectures and social networking opportunities have become a model for similar native plant gatherings around the country. With scholarships to enable students and a commitment to the outreach mission of the first meeting the Cullowhee Conference continues to inspire future generations of gardeners.