The thrill of new discoveries

I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time recently up on the Blue Ridge Parkway conducting natural history workshops for the North Carolina Arboretum. Mid-July is the peak period for high-elevation wildflowers. I can report that the flowering season this year is outstanding, especially along that section of the parkway between Waterrock Knob and Mt. Pisgah. If you have an opportunity to drive up there and look around, do so.

A particular interest of mine has to do with the botanical discovery of the various plants that are endemic to the Southern Blue Ridge Province (SBRP); that is, those that are found in the wild in the mountains of southwest Virginia, east Tennessee, northwest South Carolina, north Georgia, and Western North Carolina and no other place in the world. One of my favorites in that regard is Blue Ridge St. John’s-wort (Hypericum buckleyi), which is now flowering in profusion along the parkway.

There are many species of St. John’s-wort. They’re the mostly five-petaled, yellow-flowered, often scrubby — but sometimes beautiful — plants that grow at all elevations and in a variety of habitats. In the SBRP, there are a total of 18 St. John’s-wort species. Seventeen of these have been reported from WNC.

All except for common St. John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) are native plants. The flowers of common St. John’s-wort have been described as being “among the most brilliant yellow to be found” by Donald and Lillian Stokes, authors of “A Guide to Enjoying Wildflowers” (1984). The active ingredient hypericin is extracted from the petals of this species and marketed as the so-called “natural Prozac.”

The most famous Southern Blue Ridge Province endemic of all is, of course, Oconee bells (Shortia galacifolia). That’s the species Asa Gray and his cohorts scoured the southern mountains looking for throughout the 1800s before its re-discovery first in McDowell County and then along the gorges that border North and South Carolina.

Almost as restricted in its natural range, however, is the St. John’s-wort species known as Blue Ridge St. John’s-wort (Hypericum buckleyi). It is native to adjacent ranges in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, but its primary range is in WNC, where botanists have located it in Jackson, Macon, Haywood, and Transylvania counties.

Blue Ridge St. John’s-wort is a spreading, low-growing shrub that forms dense, cushion-like mats in crevices, on slopes, and atop flat rock surfaces. The yellow flowers consist of five delicate petals and numerous stamens that create a fluffy appearance. It is a very attractive plant that has been cultivated as a groundcover, especially in alpine rock gardens. There’s a good photograph on page 118 of “Wild Flowers of North Carolina” (1968). One of the best places to observe the species is on the rock outcrops of Mt. Hardy alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway between mileposts 424 and 425 at the Wolf Mountain Overlook.

The story of the initial discovery of this plant is told in “A Yankee Botanist in the Carolinas” (1986), the biography of the Rev. Moses Ashley Curtis (1808-1872) written by Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley. Besides being a respected clergyman, Curtis was the first botanist to study the plants of North Carolina in a systematic fashion. In the process, he became the most respected American student of fungi during his lifetime.

In the fall of 1839, Curtis made a rugged botanical tour of the SBRP that, in time, left his clothing so “ragged at elbows and knees” he was directed to Silas McDowell (1795-1879), a tailor who resided in the Cullasaja section of Macon County. McDowell was also an accomplished historian and amateur botanist. After mending Curtis’s clothing, he took him on a trip up to Whiteside Mountain, pointing out a St. John’s-wort and a sunflower that were both new to science.

Several years later, Curtis wrote McDowell that he was naming the new St. John’s-wort “Hypericum dowellianum” in appreciation of his hospitality. About that time, however, yet another plant collector, Samuel Botsford Buckley (1809-1884), visited Curtis in Hillsborough at the conclusion of a tour of the southern mountains in which he had discovered the new shrub in several locations. Accordingly, in 1843, Curtis named the St. John’s-wort (Hypericum buckleyi) for Buckley and the sunflower (Helianthus dowellianus) for his mountain tailor-botanist-guide. Mt. Buckley, a hump on the flank of Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokies, was named in honor of Buckley, but, alas, not a sprig of the St. John’s-wort species bearing his name is to be found there.

The dangers and adventures encountered by the early plant hunters in the SBRP are legendary. Who reading this would not have wanted to travel with Samuel Botsford Buckley and the immigrant botanist Ferdinand Rugel — discoverer of Rugel’s ragwort (Secnecio rugeli), yet another high-elevation SBRP endemic — as they set off with other plant collectors on horseback for “the Iron Mountain” in the 1840s? Described by Buckley as “the best prepared and equipped for collecting and preserving specimens of any person” he had ever met, Rugel rode his horse Fox with “a large, square tin strapped to his shoulder and a straw hat tied beneath his chin.” In retrospect, Buckley surmised the party must have appeared to curious onlookers “like peddlers, who often travel on horseback through the southwestern states.”

The journey was uneventful until there was “a clattering of hoofs, and Fox dashed by, with Rugel crying `Whoa, Fox! Whoa, Fox!’ his hair streaming in the wind, with tin box and hat dashing up and down at every jump the horse made.” Buckley finally relocated Rugel a mile or so down the road at the bottom a ridge where Fox had decided to stop and graze. After gathering themselves, they continued on their way into the high mountains where plants new to science awaited their discovery.

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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