The Long Trail of Shortia, by Charles Elliott, appeared originally in Horticulture Magazine, August 2001
It doesn’t sound like much, really. “A charming, small, but not easily grown evergreen perennial for the experienced plantsman,” is all that one standard handbook can manage to say on its behalf. But to the great American botanist Asa Gray (1810- 1888), Shortia galacifolia – otherwise known as Oconee bells or little coltsfoot – was “perhaps the most interesting plant in North America.” What could have possessed him?
The story is a curious one, involving three continents, numerous frustrated plant hunters, and Charles Darwin himself. It starts back in the 18th century with the French botanical explorer and sometime spy Andre Michaux (1746-1802?).
Commissioned to scavenge the back country of the brand new United States in the search of native trees that might help restore France’s decimated timber stock, Michaux traveled thousands of difficult miles between 1785 and 1792 collecting plants.
In all, he rode, walked, or paddled through three quarters of the states and territories east of the Mississippi (as well as Quebec and the Bahamas), suffering hardships that can only be guessed at from the laconic entries in his surviving journals.
His most frequent complaint, in fact, is that his horses keep straying at night and take hours to find again. Michaux’s favorite collecting area was the Carolinas and Georgia, partly because from 1786 on he made Charleston, SC his base. Again and again he trekked northwards across the Carolina Piedmont to scour the high mountains east of what is now Asheville, NC: Roan Mountain, Grandfather Mountain, and others.
He also went into the Smokies and to the headwaters of the Savannah River. And somewhere in this country he found and preserved a specimen of a plant new to him. It was incomplete, consisting only of leaves, stem, and a single fruit. Along with his many other more impressive discoveries, the specimen eventually found a place in the Musee National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, identified only by a location tag reading “Hautes montagnes de Carolinie.”
Now we move on to 1839. Young Asa Gray was traveling in Europe, ostensibly buying scientific books for the fledgling University of Michigan, but in fact indulging his first love by meeting botanists and investigating herbaria. In the Michaux Herbarium he came upon the still unclassified plant from Carolina and realized with excitement that it represented a new genus. The find also suggested that the Carolina mountains were an area ripe for botanical explorations.
But the mysterious plant proved to be elusive. In 1841 Gray made the first of several trips into the region, despite warnings from an acquaintance that “you will be obliged to put up with accommodations on the way, such as you have never dreamed of,” while letters of recommendation to locals wouldn’t be needed, because “I doubt if they can read.”
In any case, Gray couldn’t find the plant, search as he would through the rhododendron-choked valleys and along the rocky cliffs. In 1842, however, he ventured to publish with his colleague John Torrey, a description based on the sketchy material in Paris. Having claimed “the right of discoverer” to name it, he called it Shortia galacifolia after Dr. A. W. Short, a well-known Kentucky amateur botanist.
Shortia became a kind of Holy Grail for collectors. In the words of Charles Sprague Sargent (whose own involvement in the story comes a bit later), “the keenest-eyed plant hunters looked for it in vain year after year in all the region in which Michaux was supposed to have traveled.”
Not until 1877 was it found, and then in the wrong place – not the high mountains at all, but on the banks of the Catawba River near Marion, NC. A teenage boy named George Hyams gave it to his father, a professed herbalist, who didn’t realize what a precious thing he had for more than a year.
Gray was delighted (“Now let me sing my nunc dimittis,” he wrote); with complete specimens in hand he could confirm and refine his description.
In 1879 he went with his wife on a pilgrimage to North Carolina so that he could see the sacred spot for himself. The fate of the Catawba shortia was less happy; poachers dug up every plant they could find for sale at high prices. Attempts at garden use came to nothing, and the plant’s rapid extinction appeared inevitable.
But was this the only place shortia cold be found? Gray continued to have faith in Michaux’s accuracy. If Michaux said the plant had come from the high mountains, then that’s where it came from. The Catawba specimens must be a separate group, perhaps washed down from the mountains immediately to the west. Searchers proceeded to cover those slopes with great care. Nothing. Shortia seemed doomed to be lost yet again.
Editor’s note: A big thanks goes out to Tammy DeLauter Fletcher, who took the time to point out to me Andre Michaux’s contributions to botany and to Appalachia.