The Search for Shortia

The Local Collector

Mordecai Hyams fell to his knees out of exhaustion. His son, George, tried to help his father, but couldn’t manage to pull him up. Their job was simple: collect various flowers, record any important information, and take the specimens back to the warehouse. George was worried because the two had not collected near enough for the day, and he could tell his dad was physically and mentally exhausted. They had already been hiking for 8 hours. There was just one more area to cover, but it was a hillside five-hundred feet above their current location.

“Don’t worry, dad,” George said. “You stay here on this rock. I’ll walk up and collect all the flowering plants I see.”

When George returned he showed his dad a bundle of white flowers that he had gathered. Mordecai did not immediately recognize the species of plant, but just like with everything he collected, he made a note of the date (May, 1877), the location (McDowell County, Catawba River basin) and put the plants away in a bag.

Because of his knowledge of botany, Mordecai Hyams had been hired by the Confederacy during the Civil War to help process roots, herbs, and barks into medicinal drugs. These plant items were made into extracts, pills, powders, and ointments for the soldiers. After the war ended, Mordecai went to work as a botanist and manager of the Wallace Brothers “botanic depot,” a three-story, 44,000 square foot warehouse in Statesville, NC. Mordecai’s main responsibility was to organize expeditions in which he and others would gather and identify plants. During these expeditions, Mordecai would teach the other gatherers as well as the local shopkeepers how to preserve the plants. After the plants were preserved, they would be shipped to the Wallace Brothers warehouse (Troyer).

Mordecai Hyams

Mordecai Hyams

Mordecai was a true scientist. He was interested in all aspects of botany as well as in communicating his findings. He was a member of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society and would often correspond with botanists all over the nation. He was well known for sending plant specimens to herbaria throughout the region (Troyer).

Mordecai sent the unknown plant that his son had collected to a friend, Joseph Congdon of Rhode Island, for identification. Congdon then forwarded the specimen to the leading botanist of the day, Dr. Asa Gray, and told him that he thought it belonged to the Shortia genus (Jenkins).

The Harvard Professor

The train came to a screeching halt. Now 1879, the retired Harvard professor gently stepped out of the car. Dr. Asa Gray, the nation’s leading authority on plants and possibly America’s greatest living scientist, had arrived in Statesville, NC. Gray had spent a good part of his life searching for this “mystery” plant. Now the search was about to come to an end. He was going to meet the man that would take him to the plant that had eluded him for forty years.

In 1838-39, Gray traveled to Paris to network with other botanists and examine the original sources of American flora in several European herbaria. It was here in Paris where Gray began searching through the plant collections of noted scientist Andre Michaux (1746-1802). Michaux had spent eleven years in the U.S. collecting plants and sending them back to France (Jenkins). One plant, in particular, caught Grey’s attention. This specimen came with directions from Michaux so that other botanists might find it in the “High Mountains of Carolina.” This is where the obsession began. The following is from Gray’s journal on April 8, 1839:

“I have discovered a new genus in Michaex’s herbarium. It is from that great unknown region, the high mountains of North Carolina. We have fruit, with the persistent calyx and style, but no flowers. It is allied to the genus Galax, but is its own distinct genus, having axillary one-flowered scapes (the flower large and a style that of a Pyrola, long and declined).”

Gray recognized this plant as possibly a new genus that had not been studied or documented. He traveled several times (June, 1841 and again in the summer, 1843) to the North Carolina mountain region (over 5,000 feet in elevation) with no luck finding this plant (Jenkins). Gray had been busy working on a book, the Flora of North America. Therefore, he did not have a lot of time to devote to this mystery. The plant, which Gray named Shortia, was never too far from his mind.

When Gray did arrive in Statesville, NC that day in 1879, he met with Mordecai and George Hyams. They took him to the area where they had found Shortia galacifolia. Gray also toured the Wallace Brothers herbarium while he was in town and seemed to be impressed by the business. He wrote the following:

“A visit to the root and herb warehouse belonging to the Wallace Brothers and under the charge of Mr. Hyams, furnished evidence that this branch of industry has reached an extent and importance of which few are aware. The printed catalogue of indigenous plants, dealt in by this house, enumerates about 630 species…These samples find a large market, both in this country and Europe, and the orders come mainly from the wholesale druggists and the manufacturers of patent medicines. Think of a single order for fifteen tons of Hepatica triloba!…”

The Wallace Brothers

The Wallace Brothers















The Legend

The Wallace Brothers and Mordecai Hyams certainly had a great interest in plants because they were trying to make a profit by selling them for medicinal purposes. Gray was not in the field of herbal remedies. So, why was this particular plant so important to Dr. Asa Gray? Why did he refer to it as “perhaps the most interesting plant in North America?”
At some point during the 1840’s, Gray started exploring the idea of what is now known as plant disjunction (Dobbs). He had noticed that eastern North America and eastern Asia both had plants that were found nowhere else in the world. More specifically, forty plant genera existed only in these two areas. Gray noticed this and was intrigued by this relationship, but failed to study it closely at the time. In 1855, Charles Darwin requested Gray’s help in solving some plant-species distribution problems. Solving these problems would help support Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin wrote the following to Gray:

“As I am no Botanist, it will seem so absurd to you my asking botanical questions, that I may premise that I have for several years been collecting facts on ‘variation,’ and when I find that any general remark seems to hold amongst animals, I try to test it in Plants.”

Charles Darwin, By Herbert Rose Barraud (1845 - 1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Darwin, By Herbert Rose Barraud (1845 – 1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was one of the greatest British botanists of the 19th century. He had observed and recorded many plant communities in the European Alps and the Arctic that seemed to have similar characteristics. According to Hooker, it was as if the two flora had once shared a single habitat and then been separated. Hooker also happened to be Darwin’s closest friend and had actually introduced Darwin and Gray in 1838. Hooker and Darwin had discussed in detail about the abnormalities of plant distribution and how they seemed to support Darwin’s ideas about how species change. Just like the finches Darwin had observed on the Galapagos Islands in 1835, plant species on nearby islands often took closely similar forms. This suggested a descent from common ancestors. Hooker knew full well that if Darwin’s theory could help Gray solve the North American-east Asian relationship, it would not only strengthen Darwin’s theory, but it would win Darwin an important ally (Dobbs).

In 1857, Darwin wrote Gray a letter which contained an abstract detailing his theory of evolution and his ideas on natural selection. This mechanism seemed simple. Individuals who happen to inherit advantageous traits have a greater chance of surviving and reproducing. Gray realized that Darwin’s theory would help him explain the North American-east Asian plant problem if the following were true:

1) North America and Asia were treated as islands that were formerly joined;
2) In the warm part of the Tertiary period, a single temperate flora had spread unbroken (because of the Bering Strait land bridge) across the northern reaches of Asia and North America;
3) This band of flora lay well north of what later became Japan and eastern North America; and
4) When the next Ice Age came, the cooling climate pushed these plant communities southward, splitting them, as they moved down either side of the Pacific into separate communities in North America and eastern Asia. Climactic changes, such as drying of the American west, then pushed the two communities into more limited areas.

While studying plant specimens from Japan in 1858, Gray recognized a “familiar” plant. This species from Japan was almost identical to Grey’s Shortia galacifolia. Even though the Japanese variety had been named already, Gray was confident that it belonged to the Shortia genus. This find, along with the letters from Hooker and Darwin, convinced Gray that Darwin’s ideas could explain the North American-east Asian plant problem. This is also why visiting Statesville, NC in 1879 was exciting for Gray.

Charles Darwin went on to become not only one of the most influential scientists, but also one of the most influential figures in history. Even though Darwin published many books and papers, he is best known for his book published in 1859, On the Origins of Species, which outlined his ideas on evolution by natural selection. Darwin died on April 19, 1882 at the age of 73.

In 1873, Asa Gray taught his last class at Harvard. He devoted most of his time to research, writing, and lecturing. Most of his lecturing revolved around promoting Darwin’s ideas. In December, 1887, Gray experienced paralysis in his arm and lost his ability to speak. He died during the evening of January 30, 1888 at the age of 77.

Mordecai Hyams retired from the Wallace Brothers in the 1880’s because of an illness. The Wallace Brothers went bankrupt in 1895. At the time of his retirement, Hyams had collected not only various plant species, but also lots of noteworthy local artifacts including minerals, wood, snake specimens, coins, and confederate bills (Troyer). Hyams, the man who is best known for finding “perhaps the most interesting plant in North America,” died in Statesville, NC on May 16, 1891.

Dobbs, David. 2011. How Charles Darwin Seduced Asa Gray. Wired. Accessed from

Jenkins, Charles F. 1942. Asa Gray and His Quest for Shortia Galactacifolia. Arnoldia, 2:13-28.

Troyer, James R. 2001. The Hyams family, father and sons, contributors to North  Carolina botany. Journ. Elisha Mitchell Sci. Soc. 117(4): 240-248.


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