I was unfamiliar with the plant, so I did an Internet search to learn more about it. Some of the first hits noted that the atamasco lily was responsible for the place name Cullowhee, which was said to be Cherokee for “valley of the lilies.” Western Carolina University’s staff handbook reinforced this theme: “Although there are several interpretations of the word ‘Cullowhee,’ the most popular is ‘Valley of the Lilies.’ In fact, atamasco lilies did grow in the damp sections of the watershed until the lowlands were drained and turned into farmlands. The lily even appeared as an emblem on the 1940 Catamount annual.”
Curious about the Cherokee/Cullowhee/lily connection, I pursued the thread on more Cherokee-oriented sites. That’s when things began to get murky. On a site dedicated to eastern Cherokee place names, I found this: “Gula’hi place,” so-called from the unidentified spring plant eaten as a salad by the Cherokee. The name of two or more places [showed up] in the old Cherokee country — one about Currahee mountain, in Habersham County, Ga., and the other on Cullowhee river, an upper branch of Tuckasegee, in Jackson Co., N.C.”
Another site — Intrigue of the Past: North Carolina’s First Peoples — listed, “Cullowhee: a community in Jackson County; originally named Kullaughee Valley, a Native American name meaning ‘Place of the Lilies.’”
The problem is that almost all the references regarding a Cherokee valley or place of the lilies noted that the area was named for an edible plant while all the botanical sites I searched were quick to point out that the atamasco lily is highly toxic.
I decided to contact plant guru and retired WCU botanist Dan Pittillo to see if he could help me with my quandary. Pittillo said that when he arrived at WCU he was told Cullowhee was indeed the Cherokee’s “Valley of the Lilies” named for the rare atamasco lily. He said that later, after talking with WCU anthropologist Dr. Anne Rogers, he wasn’t so sure. So I contacted Dr. Rogers.
In an email Rogers said, “I have asked some Cherokee speakers about the meaning of Cullowhee, and these are the answers I got. One thought it might mean ‘buzzard place,’ which is interesting since there is an area behind the campus called Buzzard’s Roost. Another suggested that it was named for nearby Judaculla Rock and therefore would be translated as ‘giant place.’ Yet another person thought it might have come from the Cherokee word meaning ‘he passed through there,’ or something to that effect. I doubt that anyone can give the original meaning today, as the original word was very likely corrupted by English speakers.”
I’m glad I was able to clear that up for you. There is no doubt the word Cullowhee was derived from the Cherokee, and there is no doubt the Cherokee knew of a “valley” or “place” of the lilies. But I seriously doubt the Cherokee were dining on atamasco lily salads.
As for the plant itself, like I said before it is quite striking. The flower is on a naked stalk, about a foot high. The bud starts out pink but opens to reveal three sepals and three petals that are satin-white. The petals and sepals fade to pink again after pollination.
The atamasco lily is pretty common across the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of North Carolina and Virginia. It is rare in the mountains. In Wildflowers of North Carolina, the authors note that the plants “are present also in a few western counties.” However the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas, shows them only from Henderson County in the mountains.
Zephyranthes atamasco is also known as the rain lily. Zephyranthes is derived from the Greek “Zephros” — god of the west wind — and “anthos,” meaning flower. It is literally “the flower of the west wind.” This might refer to the winds that bring the spring rains the lily thrives on.