Beating the winter blues, walking through the Coker Arboretum

Dec. 28, 2013 @ 11:17 AM

What can we do in Chapel Hill during the winter holidays when the campus is deserted and the doldrums begin to set in?
One good answer is, “Take a walk.”
Our town is blessed with many great pathways for winter hikes.
My favorite place for short walk in the woods is the Coker Arboretum, five acres of paths and plants just behind the Chapel of the Cross, and east of the Morehead Planetarium.
The arboretum has been around for more than 100 years. Thomas Wolfe enjoyed it, and in his classic coming-of-age novel “Look Homeward Angel,” wrote about it in the spring: “The rare romantic quality of the atmosphere, the prodigal opulence of springtime, thick with flowers and drenched in a fragrant warmth of green shimmering light, quenched pretty thoroughly any incipient rash of bookishness.”
Already in Wolfe’s day, this arboretum, as the five-acre site came to be known, had become not only a collection of trees and plants from all over the world, but a lovely, peaceful spot to take a restful break from the rigors of campus life — or, this week, from the pressures of the season.
Over the years it has grown even more beautiful. By 1935, the Raleigh News & Observer asserted that the arboretum was one of North Carolina’s 10 most beautiful things. Today, some would say it is at the very top of the list.
Its story began when the president of the university made a passing suggestion to a young botany professor, William C. Coker, that he might do something to beautify the neglected marshy area.
In 1903, without further encouragement, Coker began collecting and planting in the area that became known as the Coker Arboretum.
In the early days, Dr. Coker concentrated on collecting North Carolina plants. At about the time Thomas Wolfe was a student at Carolina, Coker wrote that his goal was to plant “as great a variety of our native woody plants as possible.”
Dr. Coker also determined that the area would not be an arboretum “in a technical sense but rather a garden or ornamental grounds.”
Thanks to Coker’s early plantings, native oaks, pines, and magnolias tower over the arboretum grounds today with quiet power and majesty. Throughout the year, under the canopy of these mighty trees, native flowering plants share their changing displays of perfumes and color with those people who walk through the grounds. They give pleasure to everyone who comes, whether or not they can identify a single one of the hundreds of plants that Dr. Coker, his colleagues, and their successors placed here.
Several years ago, my friend Ken Moore, who worked with the arboretum for many years, introduced me to a pine tree that is an arboretum favorite.
“It is like your uncle -- or best friend,” Moore told me as he stood under the 70-foot high Walter’s pine, sadly pointing out where an ice storm had broken off branches from the top and marred its once perfect crown. 
“This is where Kathy and I were married, right here under this tree, and, maybe that is why I love it so much.”
Other Arboretum insiders are also devoted to the Walter’s pine, which has healed nicely from the ice storm damage. They tell how Dr. Coker brought the specimen from the swampy areas near the coast and planted it here in 1920.
“I can’t look up at the Walter’s pine without thinking about Dr. Coker and feeling his presence in this, his place,” one of them told me.
To learn more about the arboretum and the hundreds of native and East Asian plants there, you can read “A Haven in the Heart of Chapel Hill” by former curator Dan Stern. But you do not need a book to have a pleasant walk through Dr. Coker’s treasure.

Note: Some of the arboretum pathways are blocked while they are being repaired from damage caused by heavy rains earlier in the year.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at