Rare Oconee Bells are the true harbingers of mountain spring

Americana bigwigs Gillian Welch and David Rawlings wrote “Acony Bell,” one of their earliest songs, and titled their recording company — Acony Records — to honor the most elusive wildflower in the Southern Appalachians. Calling it a “pearly-hued” bloom with a “little-known name,” Welch and Rawlings sang: “It makes its home mid the rocks and the rills/ Where the snow lies deep on the windy hills/ And it tells the world, ‘Why should I wait? This ice and snow is gonna melt away.’”

Their particular spelling, “Acony,” recalls the words “aching” and “agony” — and it was, indeed, with considerable distress that early botanists attempted to immortalize the Oconee Bell. The plant was rare even by the late 1700s, and, by now, is a cult favorite with a range as narrow as the neck of a clawhammer banjo.

Named after Oconee County, the westernmost, mountainous portion of Upstate South Carolina where pristine Lake Jocassee is fed by waterways including the “wild-and-scenic”-designated Horsepasture River, the plant — which occurs at elevations between 900 and 1,400 feet, thriving in humid but cool forests — is nourished in uniquely ideal circumstances around the lake.

However, determined hikers can also spy the storied flower in Transylvania County’s Gorges State Park, says Mountain Region Biologist Marshall Ellis with the NC Division of Parks and Recreation. “Transylvania County is one of the few locations outside of South Carolina where the species occurs,” confirms Ellis. He notes that the plant comes in two varieties, northern and southern, with the former kind originating in the High Country north of Asheville.

But the Oconee Bell of folklore is the southern variety, and while it used to pop up in other NC counties, including Jackson, Swain, and Macon, “the status of those populations is now murky,” says Ellis. “Outside of South Carolina, Gorges State Park represents one of the strongholds for this species.”

He notes that the bells are listed as a rare species at both the state and federal levels, and are legally protected in North Carolina — no harvesting allowed. Hikers at Gorges will have the best luck on a warm day in late March if they want to see Oconee Bells in bloom. “It will take some effort,” says Ellis, “but it’s quite common at stream crossings.” (Early April is the time to spy them at Lake Jocassee, about an hour-and-fifteen-minutes south of Gorges.)

André Michaux, the famed French botanist who worked for King Louis XVI, discovered the five-lobed, fringed white blossoms on the lower Whitewater River, near its junction with the Toxaway River, says Ellis. “The story of this plant’s discovery, subsequent loss, and rediscovery is quite a tale,” he adds.

Ellis calls Michaux an “18th-century botanical superstar” who took two dried specimens of the bells back to Paris, among countless other important North American species. (Michaux traveled extensively but favored the Carolinas, Eastern Tennessee, and sections of Florida.) Though enchanted with the foothills flower, Michaux never named it, and more than 30 years after he died, Harvard botanist Asa Gray found the specimens among Michaux’s collection and gave the plant an official term, “Shortia galacifolia” — “Short” after a fellow botanist, Dr. Charles Short, and “galacifolia” for its waxy evergreen leaves, similar to the lookalike Galax plant common to the Blue Ridge region.

But Gray searched for 40 years to find specimens in the wild; his obsession, says Ellis, prompted him to call Oconee Bells “perhaps the most interesting plant in North America.” Finally, in 1877, almost a century after Michaux’s discovery, the northern-range variety was identified by the teenaged son of a McDowell County herbalist. Later, another Harvard botanist pinpointed the flower in its original southern realm.

“Gray died in 1888, and never saw the plant in bloom,” concludes Ellis. He quotes modern-day naturalist Dr. Patrick McMillan of Clemson University, who immortalized the Oconee Bell as being “found by a man who never named it; named for a man who never saw it; by the man who couldn’t find it.”

Today’s casual hikers will fare better than their botanical forefathers by simply contacting the park about bloom times and weather conditions, says Kevin Bischof, a park ranger at Lake James who used to work at Gorges. (He reveals that the bells have also been spotted at DuPont State Park.)

Bischof advises wildflower enthusiasts to look along shaded drainage areas. “The best places I’ve seen are along the sections of the Foothills Trail [at Gorges] as it meanders through the southern portion of the park. I would warn people that accessing these sections can be a long walk — but it’s worth it.”

André Michaux Day is March 31. For more information about hiking trails in Gorges State Park (Transylvania County, 976 Grassy Ridge Road, Sapphire), call 828-966-9099 or see ncparks.gov/gorges-state-park.

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