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Oconee Bells: A Southern Appalachian Treasure


Spring is quite possibly my favorite season in Appalachia, y’all. After months of cold, gray days with dead-looking trees and pale sunlight, Spring feels like a burst of sweet, sweet dopamine. The warmth! The sun! The wildflowers! And the trees don’t look dead anymore! What a time to be alive. 


One of the sure signs of Spring in Southern Appalachia is the return of wildflowers — and one that stands above the rest in rarity, popularity, and (in my humble opinion) beauty is the Oconee Bell.



Oconee bells next to a river


Oconee Bells get their name from Oconee County in the mountainous Upstate of South Carolina, where they are especially abundant. The scientific name is Shortia galacifolia for those of you who want to impress your friends with some fancy-spoken words.


Okay, okay, I hear you… what makes this Oconee Bell so beautiful? What does it look like? Well, these little guys are small and delicate with lacey white petals. A bloom is approximately the size of the top knuckle of an index finger (depending on the size of your fingers, of course). The stems are a very pretty pinkish-brown color, and their leaves are a rich, jewel-toned green. The leaves are evergreen and will turn a deep reddish hue in the colder months. 



Oconee bells blooming


Oconee Bells have captivated folks for quite some time now. French botanist Andre Michaux was the first known European to document our petaled friend in 1788 while exploring the headwaters of the Keowee River, the confluence of which is now submerged by the waters of Lake Jocassee. Michaux brought pressed specimens back to France, and in 1839, they caught the attention of Harvard botanist Dr. Asa Gray. Dr. Gray recognized the Oconee Bell as a new genus, an incredibly unique discovery, and was determined to find this little flower again. 


We know now that Michaux was in modern-day South Carolina at the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, or The Blue Wall. In his journals, he described the location of Oconee Bells as being in the “high mountains” of Carolina. However, based on this less-than-detailed description, Dr. Gray interpreted “high mountains” of Carolina to mean the highest mountains of the Carolinas, leading him on explorations to Roan Mountain, the Black Mountains, and Grandfather Mountain. However, the combination of poor directions (thanks Andre) and misinterpretation meant that the elusive Oconee Bell would evade its rediscovery for several more decades.


Luckily, Dr. Gray would live to see the Oconee Bell in person. In the 1870s, a teenage plant collector, whose father just so happened to be a botanist, found a disjunct population of Oconee Bells in McDowell County, North Carolina. The boy’s father sent a specimen of this unfamiliar flower to Dr. Gray, who immediately jumped at the chance to see them in person. In the 1880’s, Charles Sprague Sargent rediscovered a colony of Oconee Bells near Highlands, NC — very near the area where Michaux first discovered them.


Lucky for us modern folk, we don’t have to go on a decades-long search to see Oconee Bells. They typically bloom from mid-March to early April, and can be found along the riverbanks in shady mountain valleys near the tri-state border of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.




Oconee bells in the sun



References







For more photos and explorations, be sure to follow The Wandering Appalachian on Instagram and Pinterest! Be sure when you're discovering new places to practice Leave No Trace principles. Take only pictures, and leave only footprints. Happy wandering, y'all


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