Oconee bells are a rare plant that lives in the Southern Applachians. It is a member of the family Dispensiaceae. The scientific classification for this plant is Shortia galacifolia. It is sometimes called Acony Bell or The Lost Shortia. An American botanist, Asa Gray would become so fascinated with the Oconee bell that after seeing a small fragment of this plant in the Paris herbariumin in 1838 he would spend years searching for it in the North Carolina mountains. It was not found again until 1877.
The Oconee bell is a herbaceous, evergreen perennial. It has glossy, round leaves that are dark green in color. The leaves are basal (located at the base of the stem) and have wavy margins and pale veins. They do not have basal lobes. It is listed as a sub-shrub by the USDA PLANTS database. This plant is spread by runners that are underground.
Slopes of gorges in areas with plenty of rainfall, and stream-banks are the native habitat of the Oconee bell and it usually grows in a dark shade. It grows in the mountains of both North and South Carolina and Georgia. Some plant nurseries deal with the Oconee bell also. Two variations of the Oconee bell grow in North Carolina. They are the var. galacifolia that grows in both Jackson and Transylvania counties and var. brevistyla that grows in McDowell County. In South Carolina the var. galacifolia also grows in Oconee and Pickens counties. This same variation grows in Rabun County Georgia. The two varieties can be identified by the style length.
In the middle of March the Oconee bell will be in full bloom with pink, bell-shaped flowers that are pinkish in color.The blooms have five petals.
The French botanist,Andre Michaux collected this unusual plant. It was carefully dried, pressed and later placed into a herbarium in Paris. Professor Asa Gray saw the plant on a trip to Europe and vowed to find a living example when he returned to the United States. He would search in vain for years. Plant enthusiasts and other botanists would join him in his search and after thirty eight years a live specimen was found by G. M. Hyams near Marion, North Carolina. Hyam's father was a herbalist and the Hyams almost caused the extermination of the plant by over collecting it. In 1886 the first director of Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, Charles Sprague Sargent found the Oconee bell growing near Highlands, North Carolina. This would officially end the almost one hundred year search for this rare plant.