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March Flora Spotlight:
Oconee Bells

Oconee Bells
Shortia galacifolia

André Michaux is best known for discovering and naming hundreds of plants new to science. However, the plant most often associated with André Michaux is one he collected but did not name, Shortia galacifolia commonly known as the Oconee Bells.

The story associated with the naming and subsequent search for this plant is perhaps the very best story of nineteenth century American botany. Visiting Paris in 1839 young American botanist Asa Gray found a specimen of the plant in Michaux’s herbarium and learned it had never been classified. Gray seized the opportunity to name the plant for Kentucky botanist Dr. Charles Short. After returning to America, Gray arranged a trip to the "high mountains of Carolina" where Michaux’s note indicated he had found the plant. Gray’s search, and further searches by every botanist who visited the Southern Appalachians for nearly the next 50 years, failed to find the plant. The rediscovery of the "lost Shortia" became a goal for many botanists, but all were unsuccessful and the plant’s whereabouts remained shrouded in mystery. 

Shortia was eventually rediscovered, not by a searching botanist, but by seventeen year-old George Hyams, whose father was an herbalist near Marion, NC in 1877. Subsequently, a decade later, and virtually one hundred years after Michaux’s visit, Shortia was found in the Oconee County, SC locale where Michaux had encountered it. Asa Gray eventually did get to see Shortia in its native habitat, but he never visited the locale where Michaux had found the plant. 

This herbaceous evergreen ground cover with waxy green leaves and white flowers blooms early in spring. What I like about Oconee Bells is its reddish bronze color in the winter. This plant is found in the mountains of North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina. 

The Gardens obtained their collection from plant rescuers who saved them from being destroyed by the construction of a dam. March is the perfect  time to visit the Gardens this month to see these beauties in full bloom.

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