Asa Gray: Legendary Botanist and Pioneering Appalachian Naturalist

I have a field guide addiction. Upwards of a hundred of the gems adorn my shelves, although none are more impressive than my massive Gray’s Manual of Botany (1848). Great advances in botany have rendered it somewhat antiquated, but it is nonetheless a masterpiece and testament to a great thinker. With the arrival of spring in the Appalachians, vivid carpets of wildflowers provide a stunning reminder of the unmatched biodiversity that captivated this legendary botanist and sparked his decades-long love affair with the southern mountains.

Asa Gray was born November 18, 1810 in Sauquat, New York. Apparently a fine student, he received a degree of doctor of medicine at the ripe old age of 21. His love of medicine was fleeting, as within a few years, he became far more interested in botany.

He was fortunate at this time to start a friendship with John Torrey, a dominant botanist of the day. Gray’s relationship with Torrey helped nurture his lifelong dedication to botany and the natural world, a passion that would soon place him at the forefront of American botanists of the period (or any other). At the age of 32 he was appointed the position of professor of natural history at Harvard. A few years later, Gray began a series of trips to Europe to botanize, and he soon became a powerful conduit for groundbreaking botanical studies between the two continents.

During the 1850’s, Charles Darwin started corresponding with Gray, not only for scientific exchange, but also to develop a confidant – Darwin was looking for trusted peers to debate (and hopefully defend) his burgeoning theory of evolution. Gray soon became Darwin’s strongest ally in the United States, but not without deep debate and soul searching by both men – Gray was an orthodox Christian.

One of the core points of contention between the two involved the question of intent in “God’s design” for the world. In an 1860 letter to Gray, Darwin wrote the following: “I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it – I do so designedly. An innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by flash of lightening. Do you believe that God designedly killed this man? Many people do believe this – I can’t and don’t. If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat, that God designed that particular swallow to snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man or gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth be necessarily designed…”. Numerous such proclamations and deliberations ensued between the two for many years – heady stuff, and still debated today.

Gray made numerous plant collecting trips to the southern Appalachians during his lifetime. In 1839 Gray went to Paris to study the herbarium collections of the distinguished French botanist Andre Michaux, who spent a good deal of time in the Appalachians. In Michaux’s collection he found an unidentified plant, and named it Shortia galacifolia (Oconee bells). The genus was in honor of the botanist Charles Short, and the species name is a reference to “foliage of Galax.” The herbarium sample did not have a flower, and Gray became obsessed to relocate the colony, as well as to see it in bloom.

Michaux had referenced the plant to “the high mountains of Carolina,” which Gray considered key in relocating the plant. Numerous trips, over a span of several decades, were made to locate Shortia – all to no avail (clue: it was not in the high mountains). Gray was frustrated and heart broken, as revealed in a passage from his journal: “Year after year I have hunted for that plant! And I grew sorrowful at having named after Dr. Short a plant nobody could find.”

What cruel irony that, in 1877, a 17 year old, George Hyams, discovered a mysterious plant on the bank of a river in Mcdowell County, North Carolina. Plant samples eventually reached Gray. It was Shortia! Gray traveled to the site to see the plant that had vexed him and others for so long. However, by the time he reached the colony, it was not blooming. Gray was also skeptical that this was not the colony Michaux had described. Determined to locate the original colony, he made several more trips over the years, with no luck. Feeling the limits of advanced age, Gray gave up.
In 1886, Harvard professor Charles Sargent made a trip to the North-South Carolina border (this time armed with Michaux’s detailed journal notes – a bewildering oversight by Gray and others), where Shortia was found by his search party. It was believed to be Michaux’s lost colony! Flowering samples of Shortia were sent to Gray, who was delighted and deeply moved by the sight. He died 2 years later, on January 30, 1888.

As one would expect, Gray has been honored by people across the world, including the Appalachians. On Roan Mountain, North Carolina, which he described as “the most beautiful mountain east of the Rockies,” he collected an uncommon and beautiful lily that would eventually be named Gray’s lily (Lilium grayi). I always enjoy visiting the Asa Gray historical marker in Bakersville, at the foot of Roan. Fittingly, perhaps to keep him company, there is also a marker for Michaux.

Another great honor bestowed on Gray was the establishment of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard, to which Gray donated 200,000 plant specimens and over 2,000 books. However, perhaps Gray’s greatest gift was an extraordinary large silver vase given to him on his 75th birthday, by 180 botanists throughout America. It had exquisite renderings of numerous plants associated with Gray, including Oconee bells and Gray’s lily. Part of the inscription reads “…how universal is the esteem and how deep is the affection for this genial man.”

He remains a hero to naturalists throughout the Appalachians and the world, and he is surely a hero of mine.


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