Arboretum in Chapel Hill worth a visit

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 1, 2008

Carolyn Glasgow
Master Gardener Volunteer
I always meet the nicest people when I tour gardens in this state. On a recent visit to the Coker Arboretum in the heart of the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, I was able to take a free, guided tour of the arboretum offered the third Saturday of every month, March-November.
They last about an hour and are packed full of information and interesting trivia about the arboretum.
Stephen Rich, a retired executive with Coca-Cola, was my tour guide. We began at the stone gathering circle, built to commemorate five students from the class of 1997 who perished in a fire the night before their graduation from the university.
In the center of the circle is a large representation of a tulip popular leaf with the mid-vein pointing toward the famous Davie poplar tree nearby.
As we toured the arboretum, Rich gave us history of the gardens and periodically referred to a book titled “A Haven in the Heart of Chapel Hill,” by Daniel Stern, curator of the gardens.
In 1903, the university’s only botany professor, Dr. William Coker, was given $10, a gardener and five boggy acres to create a teaching environment for his students. In the beginning, this acreage was known as Swain’s Pasture, where the livestock of the faculty grazed. His goal was “to provide an educational and historical environment for students of all ages, and to provide awe and appreciation for our native plant species.” He began with plantings of Southeastern flora and later added “vicariads,” plants that share a common ancestry with our native species, and grow long distances away, but with similar climate and ecology.
The arboretum was designed as a rectangle with an arbor designating one side of the rectangle. The original arbor was made of black locust timber, known for its resistance to decay. This timber was used again in a 1996-97 restoration, adding a foot in height to the walkway. It now has 12 native flowering wines covering it.
Two other walkways transverse the arboretum.the President’s Walk, leading from the president’s house to the campus, and the Senior Walk, where the seniors traditionally walked in cap and gown to the commencement exercises on campus.
A medicinal garden was established during World War II and was ranked nationally at that time. There is also a conifer corner and a border of southern magnolias. Some of the big pine trees are infected with a fungus known as witches broom, which, although unsightly, does not seem to harm the trees.
Today the arboretum supports more than 580 species of trees and shrubs with more than a mile of underground drainage ditches, many original to the gardens.
There are many walking paths, two brick paths and large green areas where social events and weddings take place.
For more information on Coker Arboretum, call 919-962-0522 or visit
Carolyn Glasgow is a Master Gardener Volunteer with the Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County.