The Oconee bell (Shortia galacifolia) is a small, evergreen species related to Galax, with white flowers produced in March. It was discovered by French botanist André Michaux in 1787 in the mountains of South Carolina along the Keowee River near the present Jocassee Dam. He never described the plant, and a dried specimen sat in his collection in Paris until Asa Gray of Harvard University saw it in 1839. Gray and others spent nearly forty years trying to find this plant of unknown genus and species in the wild. Unfortunately Gray did not have access to Michaux’s journal and thought the discovery location was in the high mountains of North Carolina. He visited Grandfather Mountain (a known collecting site of Michaux) in 1841 but did not find the plant. In 1842 Gray described the plant as Shortia galacifolia in honor of Charles Short, a Kentucky botanist, who had never seen the plant.
During the next thirty-five years the species remained unknown in the wild, until a seventeen-year-old boy, George M. Hyams, collected it in McDowell County, North Carolina. Oconee bells immediately gained fame and have maintained their popularity ever since. Numerous scientific papers, popular magazine articles, books, and even a song have been dedicated to this plant. Today the Oconee bell is considered a rare plant. Approximately sixty percent of the known populations were destroyed by the construction of Lake Jocassee and Lake Keowee. It currently grows along stream banks and hillsides in Oconee, Pickens, and Greenville Counties in South Carolina and is also known from small populations in North Carolina and northeast Georgia. More populations of Oconee bells are found in South Carolina than in any other state.
Donn, B. Allen, and Steven M. Jones. “Geographical Distribution of Shortia galacifolia in Oconee and Pickens Counties, South Carolina.” Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 95 (spring 1979): 32–41.
Jenkins, Charles F. “Asa Gray and His Quest for Shortia galacifolia.” Arnoldia 51, no. 4 (1991): 4–11.
Troyer, James R. “The Hyams Family, Father and Sons, Contributors to North Carolina Botany.” Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 117 (winter 2001): 240–48.