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Wednesday, 09 August 2006 00:00

A legacy of lookers

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From time to time, I like to reflect upon the plant hunters, botanists and horticulturalists that first entered these mountains during the late 18th century to survey, collect, and propagate the unsurpassed floral riches of the region.

That was an exciting and significant period in early American scientific history, an era which laid the groundwork for the period of classification that followed in the 19th and early 20th centuries as well as the period of ecological analysis and preservation in which we now find ourselves.

In just a few generations, we have gone from a time of what seemed to be endless botanical riches to one in which many species and even entire habitats teeter on the brink of extinction. If we pause momentarily to look back and reflect, it may provide us with some of the spirit and insight necessary to fully appreciate and protect the region’s unique botanical heritage. The full story of this remarkable age of plant hunting has yet to be told in a single volume, but the essential components are outlined in various sources that are, for the most part, readily available.

A good place to start in regard to any aspect of Appalachian natural history is Maurice Brooks’ The Appalachians (1965), wherein the stories of the so-called “lost” plants like Shortia and Fraser’s sedge are retold. Scott Weidensaul’s Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians (1994) is wonderfully written and serves, in many regards, as an update of Brooks’ study. From there, one might move to Joseph Kastner’s overview titled A Species of Eternity (1977) in which the author outlines the discoveries of America’s naturalists from the earliest Colonial times up through the Audubon period in the mid-19th century.

Lost Heritage (1970) by Camden, S.C., attorney Henry Savage, Jr., focuses in particular on plant hunting that took place in the southern portion of the country. Chapters are devoted to pioneer explorations, observations, and collections made by John Lawson, Mark Catesby, and John Bartram along the Eastern Seaboard and Piedmont, as well as to William Bartram, John Fraser, and the Michaux father-and-son team, who penetrated the Blue Ridge mountains of Western North Carolina in the latter decades of the 18th century.

Various studies of William Bartram have been published through the years, but the place to start is William’s own highly colored descriptions of his adventures first published in 1791. My favorite text is the Naturalist’s Edition titled The Travels of William Bartram (1958), edited and annotated by Frances Harper.

In Andre and Francois Michaux (1986), Savage focuses on the story of those remarkable Frenchmen as they crisscrossed these mountains for nearly two decades.

A newer book that may not be in your library system (but should be) is Stephen Spongberg’s A Reunion of Trees: The Discovery of Exotic Plants and their Introduction into North American and European Landscapes (1990). The author is a horticultural specialist at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and has journeyed to China in search of rare plants.

A Reunion of Trees tells the story of botanical explorations throughout the world, starting with the Colonial period on down to the present. Spongberg’s vivid portraits of the early plant hunters of the southeastern region of the United States contained in his opening chapters is groundbreaking in regard to its synthesis of significant events and figures as well as for the author’s keen eye for telling details. The illustrations of various people and plants culled from obscure sources bring the pages to life.

The so-called mountain camillia (Stewartia ovata) is a trendy plant these days in horticultural circles. Stewartia is a grand plant that makes a stunning addition in garden landscapes as a small tree or shrub, when properly cultivated. The story of Stewartia’s discovery is precisely told and illustrated by Spongberg, along with those of southern Appalachian specialties like oconee bells (Shortia galacifolia), fetterbush (Pieris floribunda), Fraser’s magnolia (Magnolia fraseri), the various rhododendrons, and others.

I hope you will be inspired to take a closer look at these printed sources so as to make the early tradition of plant hunting in this region a part of your own flower-hunting forays.

For a sense of what it was like back then, let us close with a description from Andre Michaux’s journal for June 14, 1787, at which time he was proceeding up the Whitewater River on the present S.C.-N.C. line just south of Cashiers on the day after he had first passed through one of the two regions in the world in which Shortia naturally occurs.

“We had to pass over rocks,” Michaux writes, “straddle huge trees fallen over thick bushes where we could hardly see to go because of the density of the thicket, the high close hills and the darkness which gloomy weather produced in that location, and the fogs which made it appear as if deep night surrounded us. The trouble and the confusion were increased by the noise of the waterfalls of this river over rocks and several creeks which we had to ford.... [In] these surroundings there were no other paths but those beaten by bears and sometimes by Indians. On top of the continual worry of walking over snakes I sensed an increase of horrible fear when we had to pass over huge trees which were so rotten that they gave way under the feet, and we were half buried under the bark and the leaves surrounding them.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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