Last week I went on a hike with a ranger at our local state park to see the Oconee Bells. This is a rare flower that is only found only in the mountains of SC, NC, and GA and they bloom from mid March to early April. These flowers were found by Andre Michaux, a French botanist, in June 1787 even though many say it was in December of 1788. (We know this because he brought evidence of them back to Versaille that was dated 1787.) Years later , Asa Gray, an American botanist, gave these flowers their Latin name: Shortia galacifolia named after Dr. Charles W. Short. Dr. Charles Sargent saw the plant about 100 years after Michaux and gave it the common name Oconee Bell. Amazingly, none of these men had ever seen this plant in bloom.
In his journal, Michaux wrote about finding these flowers in the high mountains and people searched for these plants for years. For Michaux, after coming to America and starting out in Charleston, Oconee County seemed like the high mountains to him when in reality it was the piedmont. It was a 17 year old trout fisherman who found them on the banks of the river and brought it home to show his dad, who happened to be a botanist. For years, they sold these plants to people for their gardens.
These plants reproduce from runners that come from the established plant. Apparently there are seeds but whatever dispersed the seeds to make new plants isn’t around anymore. When people began to pick these flowers for their own yards, it made the number decline which makes them a rare plant now.
Thankfully the park service is doing a great job of educating people about this plant and trying to preserve it. There is a great 1 mile nature trail called the Oconee Bell Nature Trail that brings people to areas where they bloom. If you ever have a chance to visit the park, this is worth seeing in March and April. The trail is nice any time of year but to see the Oconee Bells, your best chance is in March or April.