The Quest for Shortia: How a 17-year-old boy found the holy grail of botany
My first post is a story that all residents of western North Carolina, especially those interested in botany and history, should know: the quest for shortia galacifolia, now commonly called Oconee Bells. For much of the nineteenth century, no plant was more sought after by botanists, and no plant proved more elusive. Indeed, this is a story about how shortia became the holy grail of Southern Appalachian wildflowers and how a seventeen-year-old boy made the botanical discovery of the century.
On a tour through the herbariums in Europe in 1838, the eminent Harvard botanist Asa Gray observed a small, shriveled up plant specimen in the collection of Andre Michaux. A brief description revealed that the French botanist had found it in the “high mountains of North Carolina,” presumably during his tour of the Southern Appalachians in the late 1780s. The plant, for some reason, piqued Gray’s interest, and he returned to Cambridge with a desire to find it. The task would prove much harder than Gray anticipated.
In 1842, as he was immersed in completing his magnum opus, The Flora of North America, Gray set out on the first of two botanical excursions into North Carolina to find it. He wandered over the region in northwestern North Carolina that included Roan and Grandfather Mountains for weeks and discovered some exciting new species, but he did not find shortia. Gray made another fruitless trip two years later, this time searching a different portion of southwestern North Carolina. Despite his inability to find it, Gray named the plant after the Kentucky botanist Charles Short. Gray regretted not being able to include much about shortia in his botany textbook. For years, he corresponded with other botanists, such as Moses E. Curtis of Hillsborough, North Carolina, imploring them to help find the elusive plant, but despite several attempts, they, too, could not find it.
By the time the fighting of the Civil War subsided, no one had seen the living shortia in more than 80 years. In the two decades that followed the war, however, finding the plant became the aim of a growing group of professional and amateur botanists that flocked to enjoy the botanical rarities of the Southern Appalachians. In 1877, a 17-year-old boy named Charles E. Hyams, the son of a botanist who worked for a large botanical drug firm in Statesville, North Carolina, discovered the plant growing in McDowell County. The discovery sent excitement through the botanical world, and Gray immediately made arrangements to see the plant in person. Sure enough, when Hyams led Gray back to the location of the find, there was about 50 plants of shortia, growing among the wild ginger, partridge berry, and galax. He had likely missed it on his first search because the plant bloomed only from late March to early April, so finding it required good timing.
Gray speculated that the plant had become scarce because it was being crowded out by its larger cousin, galax. When his party searched the surrounding forests, they found plenty of galax but no more shortia, and they returned North without finding any more. A member of Gray’s 1879 party, Charles S. Sargeant, returned to the area around Highlands in 1886 to search for more shortia, and with the help of Highlands resident Frank Boynton, discovered a field of shortia at the headwaters of the Keowee River in Oconee County, South Carolina, that stretched for acres. What Gray had failed to recognize during his early excursions into the region, this was the colony that Michaux had found in 1794. The Frenchman’s vague references to a “low woody plant with sawtooth leaves” in upstate South Carolina were actually shortia.
Shortly after its discovery, S.T. Kelsey, a Highlands businessman who owned a nursery specializing in exporting Southern Appalachian flora, became cultivating shortia and selling it to fascinated enthusiasts under the common name Oconee Bell. Boynton continued to guide interested flower hunters to the shortia beds, including Harriet Freeman in 1902. Interestingly, Freeman found by talking to local farmers that locals were familiar with the plant and called it “little coltsfoot.” If only Gray and the other seven botanists had consulted more with the locals, they could have found the plant much sooner.
For more reading on the quest for shortia galacifolia, see Charles F. Jenkins, “Asa Gray and His Quest for Shortia Galacifolia,” Arnoldia, Vol. 2, No. 3-4, April 10, 1942. http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1942-2–asa-gray-and-his-quest-for-shortia-galacifolia.pdf