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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains

By Lynda McDaniel

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Naturalists in Western North Carolina

The rich and diverse forest communities in Western North Carolina have long attracted important visitors to the region. Of the early naturalists, John Bartram and his son William are especially prominent. The Bartrams traveled through Western North Carolina and other southeastern colonies, describing the local ecology and collecting plant specimens. In 1791, after his final southern pilgrimage, William published an extensive account describing the Southeast based upon his and his father's explorations. Bartram's Travels established his credibility as a leading naturalist in both North America and Europe, and the work has become a literary classic of natural history.

In May of 1785, botanist André Michaux left pre-Revolutionary France to study the plants of the New World and quickly focused on the southern Appalachians' unique plants. When Michaux reached the summit of Grandfather Mountain in 1794 after a four-day climb, his emotions burst forth. "Reached the summit of the highest mountain of all North America," his diary notes, "and, with my companion and guide sang the `Marseillaise' and shouted `Long live America and the Republic of France, long live liberty, equality, and fraternity.'" Grandfather Mountain, of course, is not the nation's highest, but at 5,964 feet it certainly must have seemed so to Michaux. During his life in America, Michaux prepared and sent back to France 60,000 plant and seed specimens, many of which he discovered in the mountains of North Carolina. These included purple rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense), a buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus), crabapple (Malus angustifolia), and an elderberry species (Sambucus pubens).

Michaux collected and described a rare specimen that lay unknown in his collection in France for many years after his death. Eventually, an early- nineteenth-century scientist named Asa Gray discovered the plant in Michaux's herbarium and published a description, naming it after Kentucky botanist Charles Short. Shortia galicifolia, commonly known as oconee bells, suddenly became a treasure, and many botanists and gardeners searched the Blue Ridge region for years in hopes of finding the plant. It was finally rediscovered in several areas in North Carolina and South Carolina. Rare even in Michaux's time, oconee bells remains an endangered species today. While numerous other naturalists studied North Carolina's mountain ecology, two others are of special significance. Asa Gray was most notable for publishing Gray's Manual of Botany which remains a standard college reference.

Eighteenth-century Scottish botanist John Fraser made several trips through the region and has been honored by having a native fir tree named after him. Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) is the only fir native to the southern Appalachians and has become one of the most popular Christmas trees widely grown by Western North Carolina farmers and nurseries. The umbrella tree (Magnolia fraseri), a mountain magnolia with large graceful leaves, also bears his name.

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Published (print): 1999, Published (Web): December 2000, Revised (Web): November 2002, ISBN: 1-56352-463-5
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