Restored private landscape of UNC botanist William C. Coker lives on


You know those landscapes that just exude a sense of place, that identify without much thought exactly where you are?

They don’t happen by accident. For every school campus, public park or other expanse with memorable grounds, you can bet there’s a visionary person (or team) behind it.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that person was William C. Coker. As the university’s first professor of botany, Coker had a keen interest in the overall appearance of the school’s grounds.

In 1903–a year after he arrived on campus–he began designing the Coker Arboretum, which to this day is one of the campus’s defining features.

But tucked away in what today is a charming Chapel Hill neighborhood, you can get a glimpse into the care Coker took with the landscape surrounding his own residence on Plants Map.

“There are still a lot of plantings, mainly trees and larger shrubs, that Dr. Coker planted when he first developed this area,” said Woodrow Burns, who purchased the property with his wife, the late Mary Jane Burns, in 1986.

BottlebrushBuckeyeAt that time, both the house and gardens had been neglected. The estate of Coker’s widow, Louise Venable Coker, had left the house to the university, but budget and other constraints prevented the school from doing much with it.

“My wife and I basically restored the gardens to what we thought Dr. Coker would have done,” Burns said.  “We both liked old houses. We both liked gardening. It was sort of a challenge to us that we thought it could be something that we would like to be involved with creating and preserving.”

Coker’s original property in 1908 comprised 75 acres. As Chapel Hill grew over the decades, Coker sold off parcels for residential development. Another piece of the land was preserved for public use after Louise Venable Coker’s death, and is maintained by the N.C. Botanical Garden, with help from Burns, as The Rocks, a public garden named for an outcropping of granite.

The 2.8 acres that Burns, now remarried, still owns and lives on with his wife, Catharine Gilliam Burns, is protected from future subdivision and development by easement.

“When we bought this property, we felt we were stewards of this place,” Burns said. “Coker was an amazing man who had a huge influence on the town and the university.”

To experience Coker’s restored landscape in person, The William C. Coker Garden, a private residence, will be featured on the 2016 Chapel Hill Garden Tour, April 30 and May 1. It’s the first time the home has been on the tour since the first tour, 20 years ago.

CarolinaHemlockAs they prepare for the garden tour, Burns and his wife are installing Plants Map interactive signs on many of the garden’s specimens.

Burns had sought plant labels out at garden shops.

“They would fade or wash off,” he said. “I have used any number of types.”

Catharine Burns first heard about Plants Map at a conservation forum put on by the Garden Club of Virginia.

“We looked at it, and I said, ‘This is exactly what I have been wanting to do,’” Woodrow Burns said.

They plan to add historical notes about the plantings to their online plant profiles so that Coker’s legacy can be more widely known, both by visitors to the gardens–as some of the tags are in the public section known as The Rocks–and online explorers as well.

Burns said he didn’t know much about Coker when he first bought the house, but over decades of research at the university library, talking to descendants who were eager to share knowledge and consulting with landscape experts about how to respectfully maintain the grounds, he has come to understand much more about the intention Coker had for his residence.

It served as a place for Coker to experiment with plants he’d gathered from travels around the world, a place he could bring students to educate them and a working farm that once had a grist mill–evidenced by mill stones that remain in the yard.

White_OakNotable trees on the property include a live oak, which Burns has been told may be the only one of its species growing west of Raleigh, N.C., and groves of white oaks and Carolina hemlocks.

“I think he was trying to plant things that had hundreds of years to live so that they would be enjoyed by future generations,” Burns said. “It’s a botanical jewel, and I hope it would remain as such as the town continues to grow around it.”

Visit the Chapel Hill Garden Tour profile to learn about all the gardens featured on the 2016 tour, April 30 and May1.

See more of the William C. Coker Garden on Plants Map.