Enchanted by Shortia

I imagine most gardeners have a favorite flower. For me it is the unassuming Shortia, also known as Oconee Bells. I have grown it in all my gardens, and this week one of my plants here flowered. For me this is always the high point of every gardening year. My photo shows the flower backlit by a hazy sun.

When I lived in central North Carolina, I spent a few years working with John Terres, the former editor of Audubon, on a CD-ROM of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill botanical garden, and especially Mason Farm. I had read his book, From Laurel Hill to Siler’s Bog, while still living in Massachusetts. The lyrical descriptions of his adventures had inspired me to move nearby to Pittsboro, less than 20 miles from Chapel Hill.

Soon after moving, I met him serendipitously at a Haw River festival, a wild river only minutes from my home. We had spent several years putting together our photographs along with writings and sketches of his time on the farm. He came weekly to my house so I could record him reading his book in my home studio. Our shared walks and conversations about the farm and its wild inhabitants made me appreciate these woods and meadows even more.

Through my association with the botanical gardens, in 1995 I met Bill Hunt. He was a plant hero who bought and donated land to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This was developed into the botanical garden and aptly named Hunt Arboretum. He was an expert on southern gardening, lecturing and writing constantly for decades. I arranged for my aunt and uncle to join me on a guided walk by Bill Hunt through his land. My aunt had helped develop the Mohonk Gardens in upstate NY and maintained a keen interest in botany.

Bill was almost 89 but still very graceful. As we walked through the woods, he did deep knee bends to stay limber. As a former dancer, he was more agile than I was, though he was more than 50 years my senior. He spoke about each plant with knowledge and enthusiasm. As we climbed a steep slope, he pointed out Shortia he had planted there and were obviously thriving. This was the first time I saw this almost mythical plant, and it was love at first sight.

Shortia seems a plant that lends itself to obsession, so I don’t feel alone in my affection for it. In 1839 Asa Gray found a specimen in a Paris herbarium that was a new plant to him. It was collected in 1788 by Andre Michaux and had never been identified. He named it Shortia galacifolia and when Gray returned to the U.S. a couple years later, he explored all over the Carolinas in search of it without luck. In 1877 a young botanist collected a specimen, and it was sent to Gray. He arranged another expedition and this time finally saw the plant in the wild, which he called “perhaps the most interesting plant in America.” This is quite high praise from the author of Gray’s Manual of Botany, a definitive book on the flora of the central and northeast U.S. This book was the bane of my existence for one of my graduate classes in botany at Harvard, since I was unable to memorize the entire contents as was suggested by the professor. Asa Gray had established the field of systematic botany when he was a botany professor at Harvard a hundred years earlier, so though at times I resented him for writing such a long and detailed book, it’s hard to stay mad at someone who loved Shortia with such intensity. 

When I left their ancestral home in the southeast, I thought maybe I would need to leave them behind. I moved to Washington state in 2000 and shortly after bought a home in Issaquah, the town where Steve Doonan grew up. I met him through the Northwestern Chapter of NARGS, the North American Rock Garden Society. At the monthly meetings in nearby Seattle, Steve was often the enthusiastic emcee for plant show and tell sessions after the lectures. He could talk knowledgably about any plant, whether he brought them or not. He ran Grand Ridge Nursery with his cousin Phil Pearson, specializing in alpine plants. He was a generous contributor to our plant sales and led a memorable hike in the Cascades where he impressed me with his grace and fearlessness pointing out plants as he slid past them on loose scree.

He and I would usually hang out long after NARGS meetings ended. We talked about Shortia, our mutually favorite plant, and an endless conversation about conservation. I learned a lot from him about the care and propagation of the genus. Luckily Shortia loved my garden there. I had a couple dozen of both the North American as well as some Asian species. Steve even gave me a hybrid, Leona, he and his cousin Phil created from a cross with the North American and an Asian species and named for Phil’s mother. He let me in on the secret to his success growing Shortia from seed. He slept with Shortia seedlings under his bed to keep a constant eye on them, making me feel bad for my lack of dedication.

When I moved back east, I ended up renting a house next to wild land that bordered McDowell County in the mountains of North Carolina. I bought a home nearby and made many expeditions in search of it. On one of my hikes, I thought I found a very young plant at the edge of a stream leading to a waterfall. These same woods were full of its similar leaved cousin Galax, origin of its species name, and I hoped to make a positive identification when it was larger and in flower but couldn’t find the plant again. It seemed as elusive as it did all those years ago, when Asa Gray finally saw his Shortia in nearby woods.

My current plants, four I planted in my garden last year here in Tennessee, have a connection with Asa Gray. The nursery manager of Mount Auburn Cemetery where Asa Gray is buried reached out to Joe Townsend of The Wildside Garden in 2019 and arranged for Shortia to be shipped there. Asa Gray had requested Shortia be planted on his grave, and his final wish was finally going to be filled.

When I heard about Joe Townsend, I knew I wanted to obtain Shortia from him. Joe helped to launch the South Carolina Native Plant Society, and I arranged to buy 4 plants through their spring plant sale last year. Just as I was arranging to purchase them, Joe died. I reached out to the society and a friend of his, Ryan, sent me plants from the last delivery to the plant sale Joe made before he passed away. I feel fortunate to have a connection to Joe and in some ways Asa as well through these plants.

When I see a Shortia bloom, I love it for its simple elegance. And I also treasure all the connections that led to my passion for this plant. John, Bill, Steve, Asa and Joe are all gone, but I thought of them this week as I watched the dainty pink bud unfold to an ivory blossom, a petal for each of them. This flower has already come and gone in just a few days. But I will always remember fellow plant enthusiasts who shared my love for its fleeting beauty. It is a big job for such a small flower, to carry so much weight.  To me there is no other flower that brings such joy, as each blossom opens to reveal not just intricate floral beauty but a window to special memories. I can’t exactly say what inspires such commitment from everyone who sees this plant, but I’m glad my enthusiasm for it brought me together with so many special botanists. I offer a warning that if you ever see this magical flower, you may also fall under the spell of its rare beauty.