The Rediscovery of a Rare Native Wildflower
by Kelvin Taylor
The spring wildflower season in North Carolina has arrived. Spring ephemerals like bloodroot
(Sanguinaria), trout lily (Erythronium), Hepatica, Trillium, spring beauty (Claytonia), violet
(Viola), and all of the other showy bloomers are putting on a dazzling show.
One of the rarest of these spring ephemerals occurs right here in the Carolinas and Georgia.
Oconee Bells or Shortia is endemic to a small region of the southern Appalachians. This beautiful
wildflower inhabits the humid rocky outcrops that flank rugged gorges and cool, moist shady
woods along stream banks near waterfalls. The common name refers to the region of South
Carolina where it was discovered, and the bell-shaped flowers.
From mid-March to early April this native botanical gem shows off it’s splendor. The solitary white
to pinkish campanulate flowers have five fringed petals atop 6 inch tall salmon colored stalks. In
well-established sites this plant can form a dense groundcover covering a huge area. A prime
location for exceptional displays of Oconee Bells is at Devils Fork State Park, South Carolina.
Unlike some of our other spectacular wildflowers it is surprisingly hardy for such a rare plant. Once a
population is established, it spreads vegetatively with rhizomes, similar in habit to strawberries, and
tends to grow in dense, pure colonies. You can spot Shortia in the winter because its leaves turn a
Shortia is closely related to Galax and the leaves of both plants look similar: round, glossy, evergreen
and low growing. Shortia’s leaves, however, are shinier and more obviously veined, with toothed
edges. Another key distinction is Galax blooms later in the spring with tiny white flowers on tall,
close-up of the flowers
There is an interesting story behind the discovery and naming of this wonderful wildflower. In
December of 1788 the great French botanist André Michaux discovered this plant while exploring in
the mountains of Carolinas. He recognized from the seed capsules that it was a new species and
possibly a new genus. He collected a one to study upon his return home at a later date. The dried
specimen lay ignored in a Paris herbarium for years until a visit by an American botanist Asa Gray
Gray realized this plant was new to science. Upon returning home he organized an expedition to
the Carolina mountains to search where Michaux’s notes indicated he had discovered the
mysterious plant. After searching for two years Gray failed to find the elusive plant. Using the
herbarium specimen collected by Michaux, Gray described and named it Shortia galacifolia after Dr.
Charles W. Short, a botanist and physician of Louisville, Kentucky. The specific epithet refers to the
leaves resembling those of Galax. Ironically Charles Short never actually saw the plant because he
died 14 years before it was rediscovered.
The rediscovery of the "lost Shortia" became an obsession for many botanists. It would not be an
educated plantsman who would find this rare botanical gem, but a teenager named George Hyams.
In May of 1877 the young George found a patch growing along the Catawba River near Marion,
North Carolina. Several specimens were collected the next spring when the plants were in bloom.
After giving up all hope of ever seeing a living Shortia, Asa Gray finally saw the plant he had been
searching for all these many years.
A decade year later in 1886, and virtually 100 years after André Michaux’s visit to the same area,
Dr. Charles Sargent came across Shortia while searching for a magnolia, in Oconee County, South
Carolina. Asa Gray eventually did get to see Shortia in the wild, but he never visited the spot where
Michaux had found the original plant.
Other botanists have retraced Michaux’s route by following his journal descriptions. The source of
his specimen is believed to have been along the upper Keowee River near the town of Jocassee,
South Carolina. That original collection location is now submerged below the waters of Lake
Jocassee. Gone beneath the waters is the discovery site of this rare plant.
The story of this legendary plant abounds with ironies. 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 it was”
Next time you are out exploring in the exhilarating high country, be on the look out for the
botanical treasures that blanket our own backyard. Who knows what you might rediscover.
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