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This article had a chance to be published in North Carolina’s The State magazine, but since it was not I am taking it off the shelf and sharing it with you, for free, no subscription required. It is a love story with a happy ending, of a botanist’s lifelong pursuit of a reticent little flower that early on captured his heart, and how finally she became his.

Shortia galicafolia — Oconee’s Elusive Little Bell

A Botanical Tale of Hide and Seek

The first scientific specimen of Shortia galicafolia, or Oconee bell, languished in a case for decades, a dried up and neglected unidentified species. The story of its discovery in a French herbarium and the ensuing 38-year search for a living plant is both fascinating and heart warming.

Sarvis in bloom

When high against he naked slopes of winter, the petals of the sarvis unfurl white as lingering snow, ere the blushing maples stain the hills in lipstick hues, before the violets dare to show their faces, the shy little Oconee bells quietly announce the arrival of spring. Even at elevations of around 3,000 feet, which is about the upper end of their territory, they bloom early, around the end of March. Their glossy leaves and fringed white petals look sturdy enough, and they are, but the Oconee bell’s range is limited, due primarily to lack of suitable habitat.

Oconee bell

Many years ago my cousin introduced me to Oconee bells. She had a luxurious patch of them growing near her spring, at about 3,100 feet elevation. Someone had given her a few which she transplanted. They had thrived in that location, literally covering the bank of the spring branch with their dark green foliage. Later she gave some to me. And, yes, I knew they were rare plants. So I took special care to place them in the sort of environment they were used to. I planted them above my spring branch and sure enough they soon multiplied beyond my expectations.

Though generally plentiful in its station, and apparently thriving and healthy where it does grow, our local specimen, the Southern Oconee bell, is considered a vulnerable plant, meriting special concern by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. The problem with the Oconee bell is not that it is weak or delicate; rather, it is very sensitive to its environment. It requires a rare blend of conditions, such as those found in the Jocassee Gorges, our small temperate rain forest on the clopes of the Savannah River watershed here along the North Carolina-South Carolina state line. Along these moisture laden corridors of the Blue Ridge Escarpment the Oconee bell is in its element. This area includes Transylvania County in North Carolina, and Greenville, Pickens, and Oconee Counties in South Carolina.

The Northern Oconee bell, a variant species native to McDowell County, North Carolina, is considered endangered. Its station is on the Catawba River about 75 miles northeast of the Jocassee area. Though not the first Shortia galicafolia to be harvested, the Northern Oconee bell nevertheless has the distinction of having been the first whole specimen of Shortia to be found in North America. The botanist Michaux had gathered a leaf and a dried fruit of the Oconee bell in the winter of 1788, but nobody knew where he had found it. That is not to say the Indians and early settlers were not aware of this plant’s location.  Of course, they were. But the scientific community was not, and could not complete the plant’s history and classification without the whole Plant. It would be 89 years before Shortia galicafolia would be rediscovered.

And therein hangs a tale:

The Little Belle of Oconee and the Eminent Dr. Gray

The bashful little Oconee bell evaded botanists for nearly a century, hiding out in scattered environs of the southern Appalachians. A low growing evergreen perennial with leathery sawtoothed leaves, it produces small white bell-shaped flowers of five fringed petals. From the mid to late 1800’s, the Shortia, as it came to be known, captivated a whole generation of botanists and plant hunters, who pursued it relentlessly from place to place without catching so much as a glimpse of it.

The plant was first sighted by the French botanist Andre Michaux in December 1788. It was growing in profusion at Bear Camp, a small Indian settlement on a tributary of the Keowee River, high up in the Savannah River watershed. Michaux gathered a tough little sawtoothed leaf and a dried fruit of the plant for preservation. Carefully he recorded in his journal the exact location of the plant colony, mentioning its proximity to Bartram’s Magnolia ariculata and referencing the features of the land so precisely that anyone should have been able to easily follow his directions. Michaux never returned to the site from which the little plant was harvested.

That dried up and incomplete specimen gathered by Michaux languished for many years in a case with other unidentified plants. Finally, in 1838 the American Botanist Asa Gray uncovered it in a French herbarium. Realizing that it represented a new genus, Dr. Gray became obsessed with the hope of finding the plant “in the high mountains of Carolina,” the place Michaux’s specimen label gave as its habitat. Michaux having died in 1802, Gray immediately reserved for himself the right of naming the plant. Shortia galicafolia it would be, reflecting the plant’s similarity to Galax and honoring Gray’s much admired colleague, Dr. Charles Wilkins Short of Kentucky.

The chase was on! Within three years Dr. Gray had managed to rearrange his responsibilities and was scouring the sides of the high mountains of Carolina in search of Shortia. He went to Roan, Mt. Mitchell, and others that Michaux had visited, but found no trace of the elusive little plant. Two years later he made another disappointing trip to the same general area. Gray had consulted Michaux’s journal before his first trip. But somehow he had missed, or perhaps misinterpreted Michaux’s entry giving the plant’s location. (The journal was written in French.) As word of Dr. Gray’s pursuit of the wily little Shortia spread, others became intrigued and jointed the hunt. For years a succession of scientists and plantsmen combed the mountains as far as Tennessee. But none found the Shortia galicafolia.

There was yet another Shortia however. Dr. Gray had found the other Shortia while examining some Japanese plant specimens brought back to America in 1858. Gray recognized the Japanese Shortia right away, though a Russian botanist had named it Xchizocodon uniflorus. Gray was perplexed however. How was it that a rare North American plant was growing halfway around the world? But, the scientific community had already begun to notice that other plants such as pachysandra and various magnolias were sometimes found isolated in pockets at great distances globally from each other. Gray eventually concluded that these two Shortia plants, once common in the north, had retreated south before the advancing glaciers of the last ice age, and found themselves trapped and unable to return to their original habitat when the glaciers melted.

Time would prove Dr. Gray’s assessment to be correct. The Xchiocodon was a Shortia, and its botanical name was eventually changed to Shortia uniflora. The Japanese people had called their plant crag fan due to the shape of its leaves; the Americans would name it for its flower and call it Nippon bells. These two species of  Shortia had happened to land in hospitable environs in Japan and eastern North America when the glaciers receded; hence they had survived. And that was the sum of it; and might have been the end of it.

Except that already Dr. Gray was hopelessly smitten by Michaux’s elusive little Shortia runaway, and no foreign uniflora would ever replace the lovely native galicafolia. And so the hunt continued.

Finally, in 1877, on the banks of the murky Catawba River near Marion, North Carolina George Hymans, a 17-year-old, gathered an unknown specimen. His father, an herbalist, eventually sent it to Joseph Congdon of Rhode Island for identification. Congdon believed it was Shortia and passed it to Dr. Gray. Though much removed from its purported habitat in the “high mountains,” the Catawba River specimen turned out to be a match for Michaux’s unidentified species. An elated Dr. Gray was soon able to examine a living Shortia galicafolia, with its blossom, and complete the history of the long sought little plant. Unfortunately Dr. Short, to whom the plant was dedicated, had died in 1863, never having seen his namesake.

In the spring of 1879 Dr. Gray and two of his associates, William Canby and Dr. Charles Sargent, came to Marion to see the Shortia plants in their habitat. They were found growing in close proximity to the partridge berry, wild ginger and Galax. Dr. Gray was very disappointed when he realized the colony discovered by young Hymans contained no more than 100 plants, nor were any others to be found. It looked like the native Shortia was nearing extinction, edged out by a companion plant, its stronger cousin, the Galax.

Dr. Gray did not know that even then great numbers of Shortia were thriving in a mountain habitat on the Savannah River headwaters, in coves and hollows just under the crest of the Blue Ridge. Seven more years would pass before they would be found.

In 1886, Dr. Charles Sargent, who had accompanied Gray to the Shortia site on the Catawba River, explored the area near Sapphire, North Carolina, looking for a magnolia species, Bartram’s Magnolia ariculata. With him was an associate and two brothers Boynton from the nearby town of Highlands. One day Dr. Sargent and one of the Boynton brothers unwittingly trekked through the place where Michaux had made his momentous Shortia discovery some 98 years earlier. There, from a colony of low growing evergreen plants, Dr. Sargent gathered a leathery little sawtoothed leaf… .

But when evening came he could not remember where he had picked it. They were, after all, looking for a magnolia. With Galax being pretty much ruled out as the leaf’s identity, the Boynton brothers were sent the next day to retrace Dr. Sargent’s steps. When they got to Bear Camp they found the Shortia exactly where Michaux’s journal had said they would. The fact of the journal entry was not known at the time, but would come to light later.

It must have pleased Dr. Sargent immensely to place one of those very plants into Dr. Gray’s eager hands. For Dr. Gray, the search for Shortia had been a lifelong passion. He’d been overjoyed on learning of the Catawba River colony, only to have cold water dashed on his enthusiasm when it dawned on him how precious few plants were there; nor were there any more, anywhere. Now he could rest, for he held in his own hands a nugget from the mother lode.

The long search for Shortia had ended. Nor was it long before Dr. Gray had finished his course. He passed away in 1888, a hundred years after Michaux picked his Shortia leaf that wintry morning on the headwaters of the Keowee.

………………………

End notes: The Shortia galicafolia plants from the Catawba River basin were deemed a variant species of those discovered at Bear Camp by Michaux, hence the division into “Northern” and “Southern” varieties.

Some time after Dr. Sargent’s rediscovery of the Southern Oconee bell, Michaux’s journal was re-examined and the very explicit directions to the Shortia colony at Bear Camp were found. The place where Michaux harvested his Shortia specimen is now under the waters of Lake Jocassee.

end

Students/others: Below is a list of sources, for free. If you cite my article, please give me credit.

Sources:

http://www.smokymountainnews.com/issues/03_03/03_26_03/mtn_voices.html

http://www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/shga.html

http://www.ncagr.gov/plantindustry/plant/plantconserve/plist.htm northern&southern Oconee bell on list. 1/1/12

http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?ct=ddl&sp=search&k=Markers&sv=N-22+-+ANDRE+MICHAUX

http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/838.pdf

http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/274109/

http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/838.pdf

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