An Endangered Species Finds a Safe Haven

by Katherine Schlosser and Charlie Williams. Credit also to the Friends of Plant Conservation.

October 24, 2016

oconee bellsNorthern Oconee bells, Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla, is one of North Carolina’s rarest plants and has a history that makes it special to botanists and plant enthusiasts. Found only in McDowell County, growing along a few streambanks, this Endangered Species is at great risk.

Collected by André Michaux on his initial journey into North Carolina in 1787, one specimen rested for years in the herbarium of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris unidentified. It was there, in 1839, that Asa Gray came across the specimen, and determining that it was a new genus, named it for Dr. Charles Wilkins Short.

Michaux scholar and Shortia enthusiast Charlie Williams tells the story from there:

For almost a century after its discovery by French botanist André Michaux, Shortia galacifolia was lost to science. This low-growing evergreen ground cover was the most sought-after plant in America during the 19th century because it captured the imagination of the dean of American botanists, Asa Gray. The story of Gray’s long quest for the “Lost Shortia” is simply the best story in American botany.

After eluding the searches of the botanists Gray sent to find it, a teen-ager rediscovered Shortia in McDowell County, N.C., in 1877. The Shortia found in McDowell County, NC, is recognized as a unique variety: brevistyla. It is found only in a handful of populations in McDowell and nowhere else in the world.

One extraordinarily good population was privately owned, and the owner recently sold this property to the N.C. Plant Conservation Program in order to ensure its perpetual preservation and care.

The approximately 30-acre site is north of Marion bordered on one side by the Pisgah National Forest and on the other three by private lands. It is accessible by a single gated gravel road off the paved highway that has an easement.

A small spring-fed branch flows through the property and the Shortia hugs the banks of this small stream for perhaps 3/8 of a mile. The springs feeding the stream are on the property so this entire small watershed could be protected.

The owner inherited this property from his father who purchased it in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s and lived there until he passed away a few years ago.   As a boy and young man living nearby, the elder gentleman hunted in the area and knew this property and its forest of giant hemlocks before it was logged in the 1940’s. When the larger tract that included the Shortia site was divided, he purchased it, built a small dwelling on the site of the old sawmill, and lived there quietly in his own nature preserve.

He was a gracious, gentle man who knew the story of Shortia well and appreciated what a special plant it was. The Shortia plants growing on his property gave him special pleasure and he came to understand what the plants needed to flourish. For years, he actively managed for Shortia by trimming lower Rhododendron branches and blowing leaves off the plants. Under his care, the site thrived and the number of plants increased. His son has followed his father’s practices and has an equal, if not greater love for the site and for Shortia.

The McDowell Co. Shortia site on the Catawba River visited by Asa Gray in 1879 was destroyed by over-collecting years ago. That should be a reminder to us that we could easily lose this unique variety of Shortia. This site could be the “jewel in the crown” of the N.C. Plant Conservation Program.

Charlie Williams

In 2012, Rob Evans, Program Coordinator for the N.C Plant Conservation Program, had a telephone call from the owners of the McDowell County site. Following a number of visits and deliberation by the N.C. Plant Conservation Board, the decision was made to seek funding to purchase the site in order to protect this singular species.

Plans were made, grant application completed, and with some indication that the grant to the Natural Heritage Trust Fund (NHTF) might be favorably received, the Friends of Plant Conservation (FoPC) set about the process of seeking funds for an appraisal and land management.

As fundraising proceeded, word came from the NHTF board that the state legislature would be shutting down the fund and transferring any remaining money to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The board for that Fund, as we also heard, would likely be dismissed with new members appointed. With no understanding of how much money the CWMTF would have, nor the priorities that would be set, and with time working against us, all involved felt that the purchase of the McDowell County site was in jeopardy.

The FoPC took on the challenge and worked diligently to raise the $255,000 needed to purchase and protect this most precious of North Carolina sites. The property was signed to the NC Plant Conservation Program in December 2015, with the help of many Friends and contributors. Fund are still accepted for stewardship of the site (