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Wednesday June 29th

'Garden for everybody': A look at the Coker Arboretum on UNC's campus

The Coker Arboretum, the 5-acre botanical garden at UNC, is pictured on Sunday, March 27, 2022.
Buy Photos The Coker Arboretum, the 5-acre botanical garden at UNC, is pictured on Sunday, March 27, 2022.

At the corner of Cameron Avenue and Raleigh Street, UNC community members can walk on pathways through colorful wildflowers and plants. Benches are nestled underneath a canopy of green trees.

The Coker Arboretum — a 5-acre space on the University's campus — is a place on campus where Chapel Hill students, faculty and community members can escape the feeling of being trapped in a city and just relax, Assistant Curator Geoffrey Neal said.

"Those plants are part of a working ecosystem," Neal said. "They support the entire range of life that lives with them, in them, on them and around them."

History of the arboretum 

Coker Arboretum was founded in 1903, when William Chambers Coker, the University’s first professor of botany, was delegated to do something with the land. Francis Preston Venable, UNC's president at the time, gave Coker a small budget and one employee to get the area started.

Neal said the land was originally just grazing pastures for cattle, but is now a fully developed 5-acre plot with dozens of plant species.

Coker’s goal was to curate a collection of North Carolina native species, he said.

Over the years, Coker — who also served as the University's first Buildings and Grounds Committee chairperson — added tree and shrub species from East Asia to the Arboretum.

The Coker Arboretum is now a part of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, which focuses on conservation and building relationships between plants and people.

Neal said NCBG preserves the habitats of native species in particular because it is less work, and it protects the working ecosystem the plants are within.

However, he said that the majority of plant life in the arboretum is new, due to the recent removal of invasive species. 

“Putting plants in here that might look good and might actually survive, but offer no additional benefit beyond the aesthetic is doing a disservice to everything else in the area,” Neal said. “If we don't make the bees, the butterflies and the birds happy, then we're not really fulfilling our mission.”

Focus on sustainability

Coker Arboretum also has a focus on conservation and sustainability, Dan Stern, NCBG director of horticulture, said.

He said that the area is watered off of a well supply and that they practice smart watering practices.

“Its health and well-being is kind of in the care of everybody who uses it,” Stern said. “It's important that people be mindful about how they move through the space so that they're not trampling flowers, which may or may not even be up. It's important to treat the space thoughtfully.”

NCBG Associate Director of Communications Jennifer Peterson said there were many ways to use the Arboretum, such as walking the paths, having a picnic in the wide grass areas or studying under the trees.

“Things can be kind of stressful these past couple years,” Peterson said. “It's nice to have a space to connect with nature and the community to know that they're very welcome to come and have a moment of respite in our spaces.”

Neal said one of the most popular features of the arboretum is the arbor, which can be spotted along East Cameron Street. 

There are plans for the wooden walkway to be remodeled within the next 12 to 18 months, Neal said. In this remodel, larger seating will be installed and the path will be raised to eliminate the need for stairs on one end, ensuring the arbor is handicapped accessible.

Another feature of the arboretum are information signs. Neal said the signs label all the plants in the arboretum.

“We do that so people can take away a little bit of knowledge," he said.

Neal said he and Coker Arboretum Head Curator Margo MacIntyre are available Monday through Friday to answer any community questions.

“This is very much a garden for everybody,” Neal said. “Not only folks who are here on campus, but everyone else. People are welcome to come here and I encourage them to come here and take some time, spend a little time.”


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