Come and See Us in the Bonnie Blue Ridge Mountains
August E. Kehr
Hendersonville, North Carolina
Part 1 appeared in JARS v47n3
Plants in General in the Region
The Blue Ridge Mountains, along with the Great Smokies, probably contain some of the greatest diversities of plants anywhere in the world. It is said that the Smokies alone contain 1,300 varieties of flowering plants and more kinds of native trees than grow in all Europe.
The diversity of plants is undoubtedly a function of the mountain ranges which run roughly north to south. Thus with the advance of the ice sheets, the plants retreated southward, thereby avoiding extinction. Throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains area there are plants that are endemic to Canada, growing in close proximity to plants thought to be a more southern evolution.
When I was at Louisiana State University I was told that in the hills of northern Louisiana (called the Angola Hills) there are many plants of a northern origin growing side by side with plants that are typically southern.
The diversity of plants in North Carolina and surrounding states may also be attributable to the fact that the recent ice sheets did not go farther south than the Ohio River.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are even today probably not fully explored, at least from the standpoint of their flora. The expanse of wilderness that exists today undoubtedly still contains little-known, or even unknown plants.
For example Magnolia cordata Michaux was first recorded in 1790 by Andre Michaux growing near Augusta, Ca. He sent specimens to France in 1803, where the original plants or their offspring still are found. Yet it was not until 1910, 120 years later, that it was re-discovered in the wild. This prompted Neil Treseder in his book Magnolias to say: "It certainly seems remarkable that any tree or shrub native to such a highly civilized part of the world as North America could have remained, as it were, lost or hidden for well over a century from the date of Andre Michaux's discovery and recording about 1790 until Berckman's recording in 1910."
Some Unique, Rare, or Historically Important Plants of the Area
Out of the several thousand native species of plants in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a few stand out as plants rarely seen by most plantsmen or else have a history that makes them special.
Shortia: Asa Gray, who established the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University and was author of the Gray's "Handbook of the Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Central and Northeastern United States and Ajacent Canada," spent most of his adult life searching for this plant, which must be some kind of a record.
Shortia was first discovered by Andre Michaux in 1787. He placed an un-flowered specimen in a folder of unidentified plants in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. About 50 years later Asa Gray examined the folder and determined the specimen was from an undescribed species new to science. Without ever having seen the flower, he named it Shortia (after his colleague Charles W. Short of Kentucky), and immediately started searching for the plant, primarily on Roan Mountain (which was his favorite place for botanizing in North Carolina). He searched unsuccessfully for 44 years. Without question he was highly frustrated by his failure to find the plant. Finally in 1886 it was found by Charles Sprague Sargent growing along a stream near Marion, N.C. (at a much lower elevation than Asa Gray was searching). It is said that when Asa first saw the plant after a lifetime of searching, the old man wept. Once found, it was actually an abundant plant, found in several locations.
Interestingly, I could not find Shortia listed or described in the 8th Edition of Gray's Manual. Why is a plant that played such a role in his life left out of his handbook? To me that is an interesting mystery in itself.
Franklinia: This plant was discovered in 1765 by William Bartram growing along the Altamaha River about 60 miles from the southeastern coast of Georgia. Bartram took seeds of plants to Philadelphia where they thrived. By 1780 only two to three trees were alive in the place where the plant was first found, and by 1803 no more plants could be found at the site. Thus since 1803 no plants have been found anywhere in the area of its initial discovery. Despite this the plant has survived from the initial introductions into Philadelphia and is grown quite extensively in (about) Zones 6-8. For some very strange reason, however, it will not grow today in the place of its original discovery. You can see plentiful trees in the Asheville area and in the gardens you may visit there.
Buckleya: You will see a thriving clump of this extremely rare plant, Buckleya distichophylla , in one of the gardens to be visited. This very rare plant is a dioecious shrub that is a root parasite on hemlocks, and possibly other evergreens. The seed is a drupe about 3/4 inch long. The plant is rare perhaps because it requires both hemlock roots and a certain amount of direct sunlight, conditions that are not commonly compatible. It is a monotypic species, the only species in its genus.
Elliottia: Elliottia is another rare plant. Its rarity stems from the lack of success in propagating it by conventional means. To my knowledge it has never been successfully rooted from stem cuttings taken either green or mature, early or late. Additionally it seldom, if ever, produces seed, and when it sometimes does produce seed, the seed seldom germinates. The present means of propagation is by root cuttings.
Elliottia is a monotype species of the family Ericaceae in North America. It is a deciduous shrub with white fragrant enkianthus-like flowers in midsummer. It can be seen in some of the gardens to be visited.
Magnolia ashei: Magnolia ashei Weatherby is a medium size shrub, almost like a miniature Magnolia macrophylla . It differs from M. macrophylla in two distinct characteristics. It flowers precociously, often when 1 to 2 years old and 1 foot high, and it has fewer numbers of stamens. The seed cones are also considerably smaller and have fewer carpels. To me it is a distinct species, but the taxonomists are still not in agreement, and some claim it to be a subspecies of M. macrophylla Michaux.
In his "Manual of Trees and Shrubs," Harold Hillier says: "It is strange that a plant of this quality, growing in a country enjoying western civilization, was not recorded in cultivation until 1933." This plant is native to Florida and Texas, but you will see it growing lustily in Hendersonville.
Some Variants of
Perhaps least known among the plants of the Blue Ridge are some of the unusual variants of Rhododendron maximum . In my garden (through the courtesy of my friend Clarence Towe) is a most un-maximum-like R. maximum . I enjoy showing it to my friends and asking them to identify it. Rarely does one of them, most of whom have R. maximum growing wild on their properties, identify it as an extreme variant of maximum. For several years I had it labeled as R. maximum var. Ashleyi which is described in the "Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas" as a mutant of the species with smaller, narrow leaves and smaller corolla with separate petals and which had been collected in Ashe and Macon counties, N.C. The description fits only in part. Now it is called R. maximum 'Shortoff' after the mountain in South Carolina where it was first collected. Except for grafting, this clone has not yet been propagated by anyone to my knowledge.
A mutant form of
named 'Shortoff' after the mountain
of which it was found. Even the experts are often fooled by trying
to identify this plant. It has a typical white flower of R. maximum.
Photo by August E. Kehr
A second variant was found around 50 years ago by a former gardener of the Biltmore Estate during the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This form has brilliant scarlet flowers and is found in only one small location on Mt. Mitchell. Confusion exists because this variant has been called
'Mount Mitchell' and also
'Mt. Mitchell', both of which are distinctly different clones. The literature of the ARS has become so mixed up on this clone that I am undertaking an article hopefully to clarify some of the ambiguities, and even outright errors. The bright red flowers are a thing of beauty in themselves, but should be invaluable for a hybridizer trying to develop a truly hardy hybrid red rhododendron.
Perhaps the most mysterious of all is a pumpkin-yellow flowered plant resembling R. maximum found in West Virginia and carefully reported and documented by Maurice Brooks in his book The Appalachians . Such a plant exists, or existed at least, because herbarium specimens (with no flowers) exist in several U.S. herbaria. I know because I have carefully examined one of these herbarium specimens. The leaves and growth patterns of the twigs vary from the usual R. maximum which it so closely resembles. About 25 years ago, accompanied by Maurice Brooks and his wife, a small group searched the area where it was first collected by Brooks. We failed to find the plant or plants. Of all the mysterious forms of R. maximum , this one still remains the most so. Will it ever be found again, or is it extinct?
Balds and Special Mountains of Interest to Botanists
Perhaps no other feature of the Blue Ridge is as interesting as the balds. Even today the origin of the balds is a mystery that is not fully explained. A bald is a mountain top upon which the vegetation is largely grasses with few if any trees. Such balds are treeless for reasons other than elevation, because none are above the tree line.
The grassy balds were once subject to grazing by livestock as well as to man-caused conditions such as wood cutting and burning. None of those conditions are such, however, that they explain the many balds in the southern Appalachians. Today the balds, in many cases, are being invaded by woody plants, whereas in earlier years the primary shrubs were swarms of hybrids of deciduous azaleas. A mountain bald in mid to late June is a mass of color from the hybrid swarms of several native azalea species, and provide a thing of beauty almost unexcelled by any garden planted by man. One of the best discussions of these balds was made in 1931 by the botanist, W.H. Camp. Famous for their azaleas are Copper Bald, Gregory Bald, and perhaps lesser famous, Wayah Bald.
Mt. Le Conte
Charlton Ogburn, who has travelled the Appalachians for a lifetime, wrote this in her superb book: "To me the summit of Mt. Le Conte is the most exciting, the most dramatic spot in all the Southern Appalachians, and however grand the upper reaches of Mt. Washington in New Hampsire and Mount Katahdin in Maine may be, they can present nothing like the panorama of the mountains Le Conte commands."
A visit to Mt. Le Conte is a must for a dedicated botanist, horticulturist, or a connoisseur of mountain beauty.
Two of the native species of Rhododendron growing side by
side on Roan Mountain - R. calendulaceum and R. catawbiense .
Photo by August E. Kehr
Roan Mountain was made famous by Asa Gray of shortia fame. Roan is a thick grassy bald, full of unusual and rare plants, including rhododendrons and azaleas. Nearby are Craggy Gardens at Blue Ridge milestone 364.6 where there is a vista extending for miles of Rhododendron catawbiense . When this vast area is in bloom around mid June it is breathtaking. A rare plant found only on Roan Mountain is Gray's lily, Lilium grayi .
1. Brooks, Maurice. The Appalachians. Houghton Mifflin Co. pp 1-331; 1965.
2. Gray, Asa. Letters of Asa Gray, 1810-1888. Edited by Jane Loring Gray. Boston, Houghton Mifflin; 1893.
3. Camp, W.H. The grassy balds of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. Ohio J. Sci. 31:157-164; 1931.