Any discussion of the flora of the Carolinas would be incomplete without a tribute to a species that may be the most well known and one of the most charming of all southeast endemic species, the Oconee Bell (Shortia galacifolia).
The story of “the missing Shortia” includes 2 legendary botanists, Andre Michaux, who traveled throughout North America for a decade (1785-1796), discovering new species of plants and collecting some 2,000 species for his Paris herbarium, and Asa Gray, who traveled to Europe in 1838 to meet European botanists and to study original entries of American flora in European herbaria. In March, 1839, while in Paris reviewing Michaux’s collection, Gray found an intriguing herbarium sheet, with leaves and a dried fruit, and labeled as collected from “the high mountains of the Carolinas”.
Gray examined the specimen and, recognizing an affinity to Galax, named the new species Shortia galacifolia after Dr. Charles Short, a Kentucky botanist. Asa Gray looked for Shortia in 1841 and 1843 in the “high mountains” of North Carolina (Roan, Grandfather, etc.) without success. We now know he was looking in the wrong place and at the wrong time of year.
And, despite many efforts to find the species, Shortia eluded rediscovery through much of the nineteenth century.
In May, 1877, nearly a century after Michaux collected Shortia, 17 year old George Hyams, son of an herbalist, found Shortia on the banks of the Catawba River in Marion, North Carolina. 18 months later, the teenager’s father sent a specimen to a friend, Joseph W. Congdon, who in turn wrote Asa Gray, saying he thought he had received a Shortia specimen.
I do not know who first uttered the phrase “Shortia was discovered by a man who didn’t name it, named for a man who didn’t see it by someone who didn’t know where to find it”. Charlie Williams can tell you more about Michaux and his southeast travels than anyone I know. An Arnold Arboretum bulletin is an excellent read on Asa Gray’s search for Shortia
Two varieties of Shortia galacifolia are now recognized, northern Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla and southern Shortia galacifolia var. galacifolia, easily seen in Devil’s Fork State Park, a South Carolina State Park on the shores of Lake Jocassee. There an easy 1.5 mile loop trail, the Oconee Bell trail, follows a small stream whose banks are covered with thousands of handsome Shortia plants. Peak blossom time is mid-March and in my experience, depending on temperature, the charming blossoms will not last long.
Charlie Williams relays the story of a 30-acre tract of Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla in McDowell County, North Carolina, reminding us all that our stewardship is critical to preserving our natural heritage. Thanks to the efforts North Carolina Plant Conservation Program and the Friend of Plant Conservation 2016 was a very good year for a North Carolina population of Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla.