Paying it forward

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September 1, 2021

Photograph courtesy UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens

Retired UNC Charlotte professor Larry Mellichamp has inspired students and backyard gardeners across the Queen City. 

by Tom Nunnenkamp

As I write this article, my friend and mentor, Lawrence Mellichamp, is very much alive and well. Professor emeritus in biology and retired director of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, Mellichamp was diagnosed with cancer in 2019 and by all estimations is doing much better than his physicians expected. He continues to reach many new students through his well-attended Zoom classes.

Known as Dr. M to many of his friends and colleagues, to me he has always been Larry. A 1966 grad of East Mecklenburg High School, Larry earned a bachelor of science in biology at UNC Charlotte and a doctorate in botany at the University of Michigan. Looking back, I surely hope that this learned man who worked so hard for that Ph.D. doesn’t feel disrespected by my familiarity.

Larry’s research specialties include the study of native flora of the Southeast, including rare and endangered plants. Some of his best-known work has been in the area of carnivorous plants of eastern North Carolina.

This accomplished plantsman can also demonstrate “absentminded professor syndrome.” As he relates the story, he acquired a Cornus pringlei, better known asMexican dogwood, and put it in the garden’s nursery until he found a proper location for planting. But the professor got busy, forgot about it, and later discovered that it had rooted through the bottom of the container into the soil of the nursery. Since dogwoods do not often transplant well, it is still growing in the same location today!

The Mellichamp Native Terrace, pictured top, is named for retired UNC Charlotte professor Larry Mellichamp. Above: Mellichamp with the author, Tom Nunnenkamp, and his wife, Lib Jones. Photograph by Frances Furr

I say all this as a prelude to how this remarkable man influenced me and was instrumental in the expansion of MapleWalk, the private garden that my wife, Lib Jones, and I have called home for more than 30 years.

About 20 years ago, Lib and I decided to create a woodland garden on the lot we had purchased a few years earlier. Bear in mind that, up to this point, we had not yet lost our sanity. We had been typical backyard gardeners and had purchased the property behind us as protection from the runoff during heavy thunderstorms.

Our experience had been that many who called themselves landscape designers were not qualified to help us as we tackled this heavily wooded and neglected piece of property. Having purchased a couple of Dr. M’s books (he’s co-authored six), we had met him casually at a signing. Given his extensive knowledge and his reputation as a much-loved botany professor, we thought he might be able to give us some names of qualified professionals.

The phone conversation that ensued changed our lives. Larry, who is married with an adult daughter, suggested that he might come out and take a look at our project and possibly serve as a consultant. Our purposeful walks over the hilly terrain and his musings as to which “hard-to-find” plant might look good in a particular location eventually took two enthusiastic “backyard” gardeners into another realm. Lib became an avid collector of perennials, while I became obsessive about Japanese maples and hardscaping.

Our friendship deepened when Larry asked me to join his newly formed advisory council for the Botanical Gardens. Serving with other dedicated lovers of public gardens, Dr. M’s passion for the development and preservation of this on-campus treasure was evident. During the later years of his tenure, the Asian Garden was created, followed by the Mellichamp Native Terrace in 2015. This one-fifth-acre area that bears his name demonstrates how homeowners can use native plants to enhance the beauty of their property while at the same time encouraging flora and fauna indigenous to the area.

When people ask me why Lib and I have such an open visitation policy for our garden, part of my response includes our desire to share our knowledge and passion. Larry has taught us that enthusiasm is contagious. In these stressful times, I believe we all need places of peace and beauty. 

While Dr. Mellichamp was obviously instrumental in the development of such a place at UNC Charlotte, his impact across Charlotte has also been significant. Thousands of area residents have taken his classes, read his books or visited the Botanical Gardens. Thousands more have visited us at MapleWalk. Our SouthPark property is in part a tribute to this remarkable man we love.  SP

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