Coker Arboretum

| April 23, 2012

There is nothing more beautiful than springtime in Chapel Hill. One of the most spectacular places to experience our colorful native blossoms is the Coker Arboretum located on the UNC campus.

Pink Dogwood Blossoms

When the dogwoods finally bloom in April, I am always compelled to take many leisurely strolls outside with my camera among the bright green budding leaves and flowering plants. Fortunately, we have numerous nature walk options right in town. The North Carolina Botanical Garden is the largest natural botanical garden not only in North Carolina, but also in the southeast. Smaller trails for flora and fauna include the Bolin Creek Trails and Greenway, Dry Creek Trail, Morgan Creek Trail and Greenway, Tanyard Branch Trail, Battle Branch Trail, Fan Branch Trail, Booker Creek Trail, Cedar Falls Park, Meadowmont Trails, Duke Forest, The Eno River, and I even enjoy the short paths that branch off of the Umstead Park Playground. But my all-time favorite place to visit when spring has sprung is the Coker Arboretum.

Winding Sandy Path

When I was little, I lived at Town House Apartments on Hillsborough Road. It was just a short walk to Franklin Street and UNC campus from there, so I spent countless afternoons playing in Coker Arboretum. It is where I first learned the names of trees and plants, played hours of tag with my older brother, and also where local street performer Ken Kaye taught me how to juggle when I was seven years-old. Nostalgia aside, it is still one of the most beautifully landscaped gardens I have ever visited. Coker Arboretum might not be as spectacular as the Biltmore Estate gardens or as expansive as the ones in Versaille, France, but there is an intimacy and charm here that would be difficult to find anywhere else. The paths of packed sand that curve gracefully around tall elms, cedars and evergreens, hand-crafted wooden benches scattered in hidden corners facing scenic vistas, smooth plank bridges gently sloping over a narrow stream, and the 580 species of trees, shrubs and flowering plants all come together harmoniously to make these five acres a peaceful oasis on the edge of the beautiful and bustling campus of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Arbor

Originally designed in 1903 by Dr. William Chambers Coker, UNC-Chapel Hill’s first professor of botany, the Arboretum served as a living classroom of native North Carolina plants for botany students and as a site to cultivate traditional medicinal herbs. To this day, the Arboretum still educates visitors as most of the plants, shrubs and trees are clearly labeled with signs displaying their common name, scientific name including genus and species, family and country of origin. A 300-foot arbor was built at the south edge of the garden along Cameron Avenue in 1913, which was completely restored in 1997 using black locust wood and the twists of ten different varieties of native vines. In 1923, Coker introduced non-native species primarily from East Asia to enhance the diversity and beauty of the garden. In 1982, the North Carolina Botanical Garden became the manager of the Arboretum and it was beautifully re-landscaped by them in 1998, with the most recent addition being a stunning stream cascade.

Dr. Coker was a brilliant landscape designer, and starting out with only $10 and another gardener, he converted this 5.3 acre tract of swampy pasture that housed the livestock of UNC faculty into a lush haven of leafy greenery and flowering foliage. The curving paths through dense vegetation combined with hidden nooks of open, grassy meadows gives visitors the illusion that the Arboretum is much more expansive than it really is. Natural barriers of towering trees, camellia bushes, hydrangeas, and thick flowering azalea shrubs isolate this peaceful haven from the noisy traffic of Cameron Avenue and Raleigh Street and completely block out the surrounding brick dorms and academic buildings of campus.

Beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) - Central China

Coker Arboretum is a popular destination for visitors in the spring, when it becomes a carpet of wildflowers surrounding daffodils, daylilies and blossoming dogwoods and cherry trees. One particularly breath-taking sight in April that is my personal favorite is located by the arbor entrance down the stone steps to the left, appropriately named Beautybush. Autumn in the Arboretum is especially beautiful. But there are flowers to be found year-round thanks to Chapel Hill’s temperate climate, mild winters and the expert horticulturalists of the N.C. Botanical Garden. Each time I visit, the foliage transforms completely with each season, even each week, and it is never disappointing.

Walter's Pine & Metasequoia Red Wood

Even as the landscape changes seasonally, there are two notable treasures to be found year-round. As you enter the garden from the left of the Morehead Planetarium, on your right will be a Walter’s Pine, which belongs to the spruce pine family. This knotted, soaring tree is one of the finest examples of this species to be found in the United States. In the middle of the Arboretum, towards the arbor end, is a 55′ tall Metasequoia Red Wood, which was received from the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, MA and was planted in 1952. These critically endangered deciduous trees can grow to over 200 feet tall with a trunk diameter of up to six feet.

The arbor itself is a marvel of twisting snarls of vines that in mid-April is covered in the purple blossoms of an American wisteria commonly called Amethyst Falls. In the middle of the arbor is the Stone Gathering Circle entrance into the gardens. This addition was a senior class gift from the Class of 1997, which honors the five students who died tragically in the Phi Gamma Delta fire on May 12, 1996 and the three students who died before graduation.

Purple Wisteria on the Arbor

The Arboretum is a perfect place for a peaceful picnic, a tranquil retreat, a family outing with children, a place to sketch or paint, and in the warmer months, a beautiful backdrop for weddings and celebrations. Students also often bring camping hammocks and tie them between the trees for some rest and relaxation. Free 1-hour tours are provided every third Saturday of the month at 11:00 am from March-November, leaving from the Stone Gathering Circle entrance. For the 100th Anniversary in 2003, an art book titled A Haven in the Heart of Chapel Hill: Artists Celebrate the Coker Arboretum was written by Coker Arboretum Curator Dan Stern and can be purchased by calling the N.C. Botanical Garden at (919) 962-0502. Proceeds from the sale of the book support the Coker Arboretum Endowment which was created to ensure the preservation of this wonderful garden.

The best way to visit Coker Arboretum is to just slowly wander through the gardens, exploring all the hidden nooks and scenic pathways. For a more structured children’s activity, which is great for educators and parents alike, a classroom Scavenger Hunt worksheet has been created by the N.C. Botanical Garden, that includes a map of the Arboretum, and can be downloaded by clicking here.

Stone Gathering Circle

The Coker Arboretum is free to the public and open from dawn until dusk. (Visitors are strongly discouraged from visiting the garden after dusk due to safety concerns.) Parking is available at metered spaces along Raleigh Street and East Franklin Street and there are some visitor spaces in the Morehead Planetarium paid parking lot. There is also a bus stop right in front of the Planetarium, which is my preferred method of transportation to the Arboretum.

For more information, directions to the Coker Arboretum, volunteering opportunities, and ways to support the preservation of the Arboretum, visit the North Carolina Botanical Garden web site:

For more photos from the Coker Arboretum, click here to visit The Chapel Hill Recorder’s Arboretum Photo Gallery.

Category: Places

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