Nature Notes

Oconee Bells: The Discoveries of “Perhaps the Most Interesting Plant in North America”

April 2017 Nature Notes contributed by
BRNN member Jenny Squires Wilker

Photo credit Jay Maveety

“Rare and beautiful…The holy grail of plant collectors…Perhaps the most interesting plant in North American,” wrote Asa Gray (1820-1888), the founder of American academic botany, about his life-long obsession, Shortia galacifolia. Also called Oconee Bells, Acony Bells, or Little Coltsfoot, Shortia is a low-growing evergreen perennial, variously described as a dwarf shrub, herb, or ground cover. It is indeed a rare plant, and beautiful all year round, with shiny, scalloped basal leaves that turn from green to reddish-bronze in the winter. One of the loveliest, and most anticipated, spring wildflowers, Shortia’s small, solitary, and waxy flowers are bell-like, nodding on reddish scapes of up to seven inches long. The five fringed petals can be white or pinkish; the flat anthers within are creamy yellow; the long stigma, pink or yellow.

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