The Oconee Bells: History, Homage, Hobby & Legacy

by Kay Wade, Master Naturalist, friend and guide of Jocassee Gorges Wilderness

Once upon a time a tall gentle man named Joe Townsend lived a Thoreau-like existence on a 20-acre patch of woods outside the community of Six Mile, SC. He spent his days working with his hands, cutting, measuring, carefully fitting cabinetry into upscale homes in Greenville, SC, but on evenings and weekends he wandered the woods, often with a friend, learning the names of plants that lived there. It occurred to this man that other people might like to learn these plants too, so he led wild plant excursions and taught the names and characteristics of native plants to anyone interested. Sometimes these interested people would mourn the loss of these native species, which surely once grew on their own properties, lost to the developers. And so this kind and gentle man resolved to learn the art of growing plants, not from cuttings or divisions, but from the seeds so freely replenished each year. He resorted not to plastic greenhouses or synthetic chemicals, but to growing native plants outdoors as nature does, except in pots, so he might more easily share them with the local community of plant lovers.

One plant defied his efforts. It was a beautiful evergreen groundcover with shiny apple-green leaves, which tended to blush red in winter. It would not sprout; it would not grow. What was its secret? This quiet, reclusive man searched the world over for someone else who could enlighten him. But he found no one anywhere who knew how to grow this plant from seed.

And then one day, quite by accident, Joe Townsend stumbled upon the key to sprouting the seeds of Shortia galacifolia, locally known by the name ‘Oconee Bell’. But the recalcitrant seeds sprouted and died. Determined, Joe

      Joe Townsend, legendary            grower of the Oconee Bell

tried again with fresh seeds the following year. Those seeds too, sprouted and died. Again, the next year, and the year after that, Joe persisted, trying different mediums and methods until finally tiny plants lived beyond their infant stage. With a unique combination of persistence and skill, Joe Townsend had unlocked the secrets of growing Shortia galacifolia from seed.

Joe’s claim to fame spread among lovers of the secretive plant, whose own claims to fame include its very limited native range, hidden along stream beds in the steep ravines of a small region known as the Jocassee Gorges. The plant holds an aura of mystery enhanced by its interesting history, well known to local native plant lovers. But that story is for another day.

Suffice it to say the story includes French botanist Andre Michaux, possibly the first white man to ever enter Jocassee Valley, and Dr. Asa Gray, whose discovery of Shortia  in Michaux’s specimen collection in France led to a long, unsuccessful search  for the plant’s native habitat in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Asa Gray, widely considered the father of American botany, died in January 1888. His final resting place is Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts. As the first “rural garden cemetery” in the US, Mount Auburn pioneered the establishment of the American public parks and gardens movement, and is every bit as famous as the luminaries, dignitaries, and denizens of Boston society who are buried there.

Asa Gray himself would be more dignitary than luminary. His lifetime of work advanced the field of botany in America throughout the nineteenth century and left behind the bible of American plants, Gray’s Manual of Botany. His lifelong search for one obscure plant would be more a footnote to his achievements were it not for the fact that he once called it “perhaps the most interesting plant in America”. This is because he could not – even with help from a network of colleagues – find any place in North America where it grew. Dr. Gray would not have even known about Shortia had he not seen a specimen for himself, on a trip to Europe some 50 years prior, in a collection made by the French botanical explorer Andre Michaux in the latter 1700’s. The search for Shortia galacifolia, as Dr. Gray had named the plant, would spread its name among American botanists for decades before its eventual rediscovery in the deep gorges on the southern face of the Blue Ridge mountain escarpment in the western Carolinas.

The only Shortia plants Dr. Gray ever saw in the wild would eventually prove not to be his Shortia galacifolia at all, but rather a very closely related species found in NC, newly named (in 2019) Shortia brevistyla. Nonetheless, Dr. Gray was so relieved to discover that the plant actually existed, he declared his life complete and famously requested that the evergreen groundcover Shortia accompany him to his grave.

To this day Mount Auburn is maintained as a garden, with its own greenhouses and garden staff. Jerrald Mendenhall is Nursery Manager and Plant Propagator at the cemetery. He and his staff recently undertook a $10 million dollar renovation of the landscape to establish the Asa Gray Garden, now the focal point of the 174-acre grounds. In 2018 the garden staff planted Shortia galacifolia in the new Asa Gray Garden, but the plants they bought had arrived in poor condition and did not survive.

One evening, by chance, buried on the third page of an online search for Shortia galacifolia, Jerrald Mendenhall came across a listing that had a promising heading: “Seed-grown Oconee Bell plants available for purchase” from a place called The Wildside Garden. The listing had an email address. Mendenhall sent an immediate inquiry.

And so, on the evening of Good Friday in 2019, Joe Townsend received the following email:

Hello, I’m Jerry Mendenhall from Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts. I am looking for several Shortia plants to place on the grave of Asa Gray who is buried at our property. You may have heard of his lifelong quest for this plant. We have recently reconstructed a section of the cemetery and named it in his honor, and this plant would be key to its design. Do you have any available for purchase?

Thank you, Jerry Mendenhall

Plant propagator/ Nursery Manager, Mount Auburn Cemetery

His affirmative response was almost immediate. After brief correspondence, Mendenhall knew he had found the right person. The initial order of 20 plants was doubled when the cemetery’s Collections Curator heard of Joe’s plants, and when the cemetery’s president got involved, the order quickly expanded to 60 plants.

To grow Shortia plants past the point of needing protection from the elements takes a full year. It takes 2 to 3 years for young plants to form flower buds, and 3 to 4 years before they send forth short stolons from which new plants will grow. A small, full pot of Shortia represents about 5 years of tender care.

The first shipment of Shortia plants arrived Boston, Massachusetts, on April 25th, 2019. They remained outside in the shade of the greenhouse, beside Jerry Mendenhall’s office door, until the site in Gray’s Garden was ready. Then in June the care of the plants went into the hands of the gardeners who helped plant them. We wish them well.

Joe Townsend no longer lives in the simple shack on his 20-acre patch of woods where he started his nursery. He has been forced to move “to town” by the slow, relentless development of Parkinson’s Disease, an insidious disorder of the nervous system. Looking back, Joe suspects the disease was affecting him many years before the symptoms became apparent. He can drive but walking the steep forest floor to collect Shortia seeds has become too great a challenge. Joe has many friends who have known him since the fledgling days of the South Carolina Native Plant Society, which he helped found. Friends help collect seeds and carefully package and ship Shortia to the eleven states where his plants have been requested.

Every day he returns to his woods to care for the plants growing at The Wildside Garden. He has abandoned growing all other wildflowers to concentrate his dwindling energy on Shortia galacifolia. He is adamant that it should never become a common garden center plant. “This plant has a mystique,” Joe says. “It has the history, the folklore… and it’s not for everybody, or everybody’s garden.” Someday, he says, he will find the right person and pass his knowledge of growing Shortia to someone else. But it will have to be the right person.

Several years ago Joe designed a bumper sticker, which is, surely, his mantra. The sticker shows off the delicately fringed white flower of the Oconee Bell, and its message is clear and simple: “I live for Wildflowers.”