“Garden for Everyone”: A look at the Coker Arboretum on the UNC campus


At the corner of Cameron Avenue and Raleigh Street, members of the UNC community can walk paths through wildflowers and colorful plants. Benches are tucked under a canopy of green trees.

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

“These plants are part of a functioning ecosystem,” Neal said. “They support the full 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, president of UNC at the time, gave Coker a small budget and an employee to start the area.

Neal said the land was originally just cattle pasture but is now a fully developed 5-acre parcel with dozens of plant species.

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

Over the years, Coker – who also served as the first chair of the university’s buildings and grounds committee – added East Asian tree and shrub species to the Arboretum.

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

Neal said the NCBG preserves the habitats of native species in particular because it is less labor intensive and it protects the working ecosystem in which the plants are found.

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

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

Focus on sustainability

Coker Arboretum also emphasizes conservation and sustainability, said Dan Stern, NCBG director of horticulture.

He said the area is watered by a well and they practice smart watering practices.

“His health and well-being are kind of in the hands of everyone who uses him,” Stern said. “It’s important for people to be aware of how they move through space so they don’t step on the flowers, which may or may not be lifted. It is important to treat space thoughtfully.

NCBG Associate Director of Communications Jennifer Peterson said there are many ways to use the Arboretum, such as walking the trails, picnicking in the wide expanses of grass or studying under the trees.

“Things can be quite stressful the last two years,” Peterson said. “It’s nice to have a space to connect with nature and the community to know that they are welcome to come and spend 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.

The wooden walkway is expected to be remodeled within the next 12 to 18 months, Neal said. In this remodel, larger seats will be fitted and the path will be raised to eliminate the need for stairs at one end, ensuring the gazebo is accessible to people with disabilities.

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

“We do this so people can take a bit of knowledge home,” he said.

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

“It really is a garden for everyone,” Neal said. “Not just the people who are here on campus, but everyone else. People are welcome and I encourage them to come here and take some time, spend some time.



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