North Carolina: Arboretum celebrates the box turtle, and so should you


Unless you’ve already made plans, you’re probably not going to make it to Box Turtle Day on Saturday at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville. And that’s too bad.

If you grew up east of the Rocky Mountains and south of the Great Lakes, you probably encountered one of the docile reptiles while you were out playing. Maybe you even brought it home and wrote your name on it.

People also used to smoke and not wear seat belts. Sometimes, we just didn’t know better.

The reasons for not capturing and keeping (never mind writing your name on one) the long-lived turtles should become clearer after the 1:30-4:30 event, aimed at kids and adults, at the 450-acre arboretum.


Why would you celebrate the box turtle, the state reptile, in the first place?

The turtles have had a rough go. A list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources shows Terrapene carolina as “vulnerable,” a step below “endangered” on a scale that progresses to “critically endangered,” “extinct in the wild” and “extinct.”

“Every species is incredibly important in maintaining biodiversity,” said Jonathan Marchal, youth education manager for the arboretum. For instance, box turtles eat the mayapple plant, he said, which is now being used in cancer-fighting drugs. When the turtle eliminates its meal, it is helping with propagation of the mayapple, which is being used instead of another plant that is nearly extinct.

Turtles also stimulate interest in a diversity of academic areas, Marchal said. “Box turtles have a way of connecting kids with nature that’s not seen in other species,” he said. “A box turtle is really approachable, acting as an ambassador from the wild natural world. “

A conversation about a box turtle might turn into a larger discussion about other species and their importance, he said, and it may open the worlds of science, engineering and technology, never mind enjoying the outdoors.

If you visit the arboretum, you might come upon Shelly, a box turtle that has been there about a half-a-dozen years. She’s somewhere between 60 and 80 years old and was brought to the arboretum, which kept her to protect her.

Relocating turtles is a bad idea since they have an instinct to return to wherever they were, Marchal said. It could be a perilous journey as they try to go back; turtles often get hit by cars, which joins habitat destruction as among the reasons they are vulnerable. If you see a turtle by the side of the street and it’s about to become road kill, make sure you are safe, then remove it to the other side in the direction it’s going, he said.


If you touch a turtle, wash your hands and/or use hand sanitizer because they can carry salmonella.

And know that each turtle you save — and celebrate — may have a chance to reach the century mark, meaning that they could outlive us. Not a bad legacy for a species — humankind — that has wreaked such havoc.

Info: North Carolina Arboretum. The event is free; parking is $12.