March 20, 2023
I'm honored to share this blog by Perry Eury, whom I consider a National Treasure.
In the month of March, the stream banks near Lake Jocassee are the site of a botanical spectacle found nowhere else on the planet. Among the first wildflowers to bloom in early spring, the delicate white Oconee Bells (Shortia galacifolia) are as beautiful as they are rare.
Beyond that, the plant was the subject of a mystery that intrigued and frustrated botanists for an entire century. That aspect of its history led to the description of the plant as one “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.” That story begins with the great French botanist Andre Michaux, who was exploring the South Carolina upcountry in December of 1788. Accompanied by a Cherokee guide, Michaux collected plant specimens from valleys now deep beneath the waters of Lake Jocassee.
Michaux carefully collected the seed capsules and shiny green leaves of one plant that he did not recognize and that specimen eventually made its way to a herbarium in Paris. When the American botanist Asa Gray visited that herbarium in 1839 and saw the mysterious plant for the first time. A note attached to the specimen indicated that it was found in the “Carolina mountains” and Gray spent the next forty years trying to pin down the exact location where the plant had been collected. Recognizing that the plant did not belong to any known genus, Gray named it “Shortia galacifolia” as a tribute to the Kentucky botanist Charles Short and as a comment on the resemblance of the foliage to that of the galax. Upon naming the plant, Gray challenged Dr. Short to travel to the Carolina mountains and actually locate the plant in its native habitat. That never happened and Charles Short never saw the plant bearing his name.
Gray never wavered from his Shortia quest although he had knew neither its time of bloom and its preferred elevation. He sought it out while working from Jefferson, NC in the far-northwestern corner of the state. And he hoped to find it along the high peaks of Grandfather Mountain, the Roans and the Blacks. If only Gray had consulted Michaux’s diary from 1788, he might have located the plant in short order. Indeed, Michaux explained that he first encountered the mysterious plant along the headwaters of the Keowee River:
“There was in this place a little cabin inhabited by a family of Cherokee Indians. We stopped there to camp and I ran off to make some investigations. I gathered a new low woody plant with saw-toothed leaves creeping on the mountain a short distance from the river.”
A couple of days later, Michaux added:
“I came back to camp with my guide at the head of the Keowee and gathered a large quantity of the low woody plants with the sawtoothed leaves that I found the day I arrived. I did not see it on any other mountain. The Indians of the place told me that the leaves had a good taste when chewed and the odor was agreeable when they were crushed, which I found to be the case.”
And Michaux even left explicit directions for finding the plant, which would have served Asa Gray in his search decades later:
“The head of the Keowee is the junction of two torrents of considerable size which flow in cascades from the high mountains. This junction takes place in a small plain where there was once a Cherokee village. On descending from the junction of these two torrents with the river to one’s left and the mountains which face north on the right, one finds at about 100-300 feet from the junction, a path formed by the Indian hunters.’ It leads to a brook where one recognizes the site of an Indian village by the peach trees which still exist in the midst of the underbrush. Continuing on this path one soon reaches the mountains and one finds this plant which covers the ground along with the Epigaea repens [Trailing arbutus].”
Lacking that crucial information, Gray never came close to the site of Michaux’s discovery. But in May 1877, seventeen year old George Hyams found Shortia growing on the banks of the Catawba River near Marion, NC. George’s father, M. E. Hyams, an herbalist, did not recognize the plant. Eighteen months later, M. W. Hyams sent a specimen to a friend in Rhode Island who subsequently alerted Gray to the possible discovery of the elusive plant.
A jubilant Asa Gray corresponded directly with M. E. Hyams and planned a visit to Marion in the spring of 1879, and at last he observed Shortia, albeit a small and isolated colony, growing in the wild. Gray wrote:
“Year after year have I hunted for that plant! And I grew sorrowful at having named after Dr. Short a plant that nobody could find. So conspicuous for its absence had this rarity become, that friends of ours botanizing in the mountains two years ago, were accosted with the question-’Found Shortia yet?’-from people who had seen our anxious search for it.”
Although Gray never reached Keowee, a younger botanist retraced the travels of Andre Michaux. In the autumn of 1886, Charles Sprague Sargent and some fellow botanists were looking for another plant mentioned by Michaux, Magnolia cordata [Yellow Cucumber Tree]. They were traveling from Sapphire to Cashiers in North Carolina when their discussion turned to Shortia.
Inspired by that conversation, Frank Boynton was determined to find the plant where Michaux have first seen it. And in the spring of 1889, just one year after Asa Gray died, Boynton departed his home in Highlands, NC to find the Keowee headwaters:
“We camped the first night at the White Water Falls, which alone are worth a considerable journey to see. The Jocassee Valley, our destination, is at the mouth of White Water Creek or rather at the Junction of White Water and Devil Fork. I wished to see if Shortia was growing as high up in the mountains as these Falls, which are at least 1000 feet above Jocassee. No Shortia was found, however, until we reached the valley, which has an altitude of about 1200 feet and here it grows by the acre. Every little brooklet is lined with it. Most of these little water courses are in deep narrow gorges where the sun hardly penetrates, except during the middle of the day. All these steep banks are literally covered with Shortia. What is comforting to the botanist is that it can hardly be exterminated. It is on land too steep to be cultivated and there is such an abundance that no amount of collecting can ever effect it strenuously. Our party took away bushels of it, and no one could tell that a plant had been disturbed, so thickly it is growing. No idea of the beauty of this plant can be formed until it has been seen in its native home. The mass of glossy green and white, once seen, can never be forgotten.
“The home of Shortia is a strange mixture of North and South. As a rule it grows under the shade of rhododendrons and tall kalmias. Hemlock and white pine of splendid dimensions are very common.... To see Shortia in blossom and in its glory one must get there about the 20th of March, not later than March 25.
And so, the quest for an elusive plant first noted by a French botanist in 1788 finally came full circle. But that is no the end of the saga. Although Boynton declared that the Oconee Bells could “hardly be exterminated” thanks to their abundance and the terrain of their habitat, he failed to anticipate the actions of Duke Power Company in the 1970s. Duke’s construction of Lake Jocassee doomed the largest part of the world’s largest population of Shortia galacifolia. Loads and loads of Oconee Bells, growing on the soon-to-be inundated streambanks, were hauled away in pickup trucks and station wagons for transplanting in other locales. The flowers that remain, above the level of the lake, still constitute the greatest community of the species anywhere, though isolated native populations have been found in Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Massachusetts and even Japan.
Oconee bells can form a dense groundcover in moist, shady forests, with the typical habitat being a streambank under the shade of rhododendron in a forested area populated by hemlock, white pine and tulip poplar.
A legend attributed to the Cherokee suggests that the blooms of the Oconee Bell led people to the waters of Jocassee:
“Jocassee and its meaning are derived from the legend of a Cherokee maiden. Chief Attakulla and his Oconee tribe, known as the "Brown Vipers," lived on the west side of the Whitewater River. The Eastatoees, a rival tribe, lived on the east and were called the "Green Birds." It is likely that the Green Birds received their name from the Carolina parakeet (Conoropsis carolinensis), a species that became extinct in 1904. This was the only endemic parrot of North America. The Eastatoee area was the last site the species was recorded in South Carolina.
“Legend has it that a young warrior named Nagoochee lived among the Green Birds but was not afraid to enter Brown Viper hunting grounds. One day while hunting in Brown Viper territory (probably the area known as Musterground today), Nagoochee fell and broke his leg. Nagoochee was convinced he would perish in the wilderness, when he heard the singing of Jocassee, Chief Attakulla's daughter. Jocassee took Nagoochee back to her father's lodge and ursed him back to health. They fell in love and Nagoochee stayed with the Oconee tribe.
“Later during a fight between the tribes, Jocassee's brother, Cheochee, killed Nagoochee. When Cheochee returned from battle with Nagoochee's head dangling from his belt, Jocassee didn't say a word. She slipped into a canoe and onto the water. As Jocassee still gazed at the head of her lover, she stepped into the water. Legend claims that she did not sink but walked across the water to meet the ghost of Nagoochee. The name Jocassee means "Place of the Lost One."
More recently, the flower inspired a song by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings:
The fairest bloom the mountain knows
Is not an iris or a wild rose
But the little flower of which I'll tell
Known as the brave Acony Bell
Just a simple flower so small and plain
With a pearly hue and a little known name
But the yellow birds sing when they see it bloom
For they know that spring is coming soon
Well it makes its home mid the rocks and the rills
Where the snow lies deep on the windy hills
And it tells the world "why should I wait
This ice and snow is gonna melt away"
And so I'll sing that yellow bird's song
For the troubled times will soon be gone