May 2, 2022
Who knows about the Oconee Bell? Probably very few, outside the botany field, and maybe not many botanists. They may know it as Shortia galacifolia, the scientific name. Obviously, Oconee Bell is easier for those who may have a reason to talk about it. It’s a rare, delicate flowering plant found only in a stretch of mountain forest in northwestern South Carolina and environs nearby.
We were introduced to the Bell, or Shortia, at a picnic put on by the Foothills Trail Conservancy, a bunch of city and small-town folks who love wild country more than meetings. It’s a taciturn group; we gathered they don’t get together much outside this once-a-year picnic. We met at Gorges State Park, just north of the state line, in spooky, near-impenetrable forest.
The massive park, 7,500 acres, is hidden high on the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the rugged stretch of country between the gentle piedmont farther east and the soaring western North Carolina peaks that merge with the Great Smokies. This is magical country, crisscrossed by rushing whitewater streams and waterfalls, rich with wildlife and countless species of unique flora, where the pure forest mountain air creates its own unique weather patterns.
S.C. 11 follows an arc across the top of the state onto the Escarpment and into North Carolina’s vast Nantahala National Forest, at 531,000 acres the largest of the state’s four national forests. Route 11 meets U.S. 130 maybe a dozen miles east of the gorgeous Chattooga River, a National Scenic River that forms the Georgia-S.C. state line. The highway, dotted with a few homesteads, then steadily gains altitude as it winds north through the backcountry. In 12 miles it crosses into North Carolina and becomes N.C. 281. Within a half-mile of the border it rims huge, deep-blue Lake Jocassee and passes spectacular Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi.
The forest thickens along 281 as it rises into a sort of paved-road switchback open to vistas of green peaks stretching east. The Gorges gate is eight miles past Whitewater. The park road then cuts through woods for a couple more miles and you’re there.
Most of the Conservancy guys and gals are getting up there in years, although some younger ones showed up. They came from all over to this corner of the country, the pointed end of the South Carolina pie slice. Around there, state lines seem non-existent or at least invisible. Northwestern South Carolina, northeastern Georgia, and southwestern North Carolina, to those who know the territory, form one massive, rocky green world, crossed mainly by narrow, rocky trails and clear, fast-moving streams.
Botanical research is one of many professions I know nothing about, and one I have never made any effort to learn. But as we sat after lunch, Kay Wade, a naturalist and co-founder of Jocassee Wild Outdoor Education stepped up. Her “Story of the Oconee Bells” introduced us to the explorations of Frenchman Andre Michaux and Scotsman John Fraser, late-18th century botanists who tramped the eastern wilderness of North America seeking unique species. They discovered the Bells in these parts. Michaux sent specimens back to nurseries in Paris.
In 1839 American botanist Asa Gray found the plants at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and named it Shortia galacifolia in honor of a friend, Dr. Charles Short. For decades he hunted for it around North Carolina with no luck.
Kay presented a deep dive in botanical history. In 1877 a man named George Hyams found the plant near the Catawba River in North Carolina. His father, a botanist, got word to Gray, who in 1879 was able to see it himself. In 1888 another botanist, Charles Sargent, found the Bell in the wilderness bounded by the Horsepasture and Toxaway Rivers, where Michaux had discovered it. In 1973 part of the area was flooded to create Lake Jocassee.
Kay filled us in about flower, its coloring, leaf structure, where it’s found, in two species, northern and southern, even giving us the lowdown on the moist soil it likes. As it happens, we missed the blooming season, March through early April, which occurs in a narrow quadrant between Routes 11 and 178 in South Carolina and U.S. 64 in North Carolina. I learned there’s an Oconee Bell Nature Walk at Devil’s Fork State Park. But wait ‘til next year to see them.
She recognized her talk was a tad heavy on history and science, and with a smile wrapped it up in 30 minutes. A few folks, not including me, asked polite questions. She noted that Asa Gray is considered the “father of American botany.” I didn’t know that. For her, we could all tell, the story is a personal labor of love.
I’ve never been much on the details of what’s growing out there in the woods. Most likely I’ve passed Bells on trail treks, but never noticed them, never picked them out among the rich variety of the delicate and rough natural beauty in the places I’ve wandered through.
We came away touched somehow by this gentle dose of education we had not pursued. Nature here is mainly the still, dense forest in its rich shades of green and the multi-colored diversity of these specimens. Oconee Bells and every other living thing create grace that reaches out to us, like God’s mercy. In a stunning, fortuitous way they offer a measure of beauty and serenity that sustains us while, an ocean and a continent away, we confront man-made darkness.