Despite being a stepmother-in-law – a combination of two very negative stereotypes – I have a wonderful son and daughter-in-law. Last July, my daughter-in-law, Laura, sent me an e-mail in which she outlined her plans for my Thanksgiving. She and Geoff invited me to their home in Summerville, South Carolina, to Thanksgiving dinner with Laura’s parents, and following that, to three days at a condo on the shore in Litchfield, south of Myrtle Beach. Needless to say, I accepted their invitation, and I could easily fill this entire column with a discussion of the wonderful time we had and the great meals we ate. However, I am supposed to stick to biology, and I will. Fortunately this is easy to do because South Carolina is a very interesting place, biologically speaking.
As a northerner, I had very little experience of the South, that is, until a few years ago when Geoff moved to Charleston and met Laura. Now, I’m lucky enough to go there at least once a year. Laura has lived in Summerville most of her life and teaches biology in the local high school. Thus, I have a knowledgeable guide, especially because she is also interested in environmental issues as well as in the history of Charleston and has been a docent at several of its historical sites. Despite the horrors of the Civil War and the march of progress, Charleston has managed to hold on to more of its architectural and institutional history than most American cities. For example, the College of Charleston (founded in 1770) and the Charleston Museum (founded in 1773) remain in the heart of the city. The museum is not in its original home, but it contains a wonderful collection of artifacts related to South Carolina’s history and biology. I particularly liked the galleries devoted to natural history and was struck by two displays there.
The first is an exhibit of eight herbarium sheets of plants collected at the Gettysburg battlefield from April to June 1894 by Charles K. Bell, a student at the Lutheran Seminary that is near the battlefield and was itself the site of fighting on the first day of the battle. With each sheet, which is marked with the location on the battlefield where Bell collected the plant, is a photograph of what that particular site looked like at the time of the battle. These are stark images of bodies, artillery, and so on. To make the display even more haunting, there is a note in the case stating: “Perhaps the last thing some mortally wounded Confederate or Union soldier saw was one of these plants.”
The other display I was drawn to is of the 20 new bird species collected by Mark Catesby (1682–1749) in South Carolina and then named by Carl Linnaeus. Each species is represented by a mounted specimen and by an outspread wing to show the plumage. This exhibit is a great reminder of the biological riches awaiting the early naturalists who explored the area. While at the museum, I bought several books on South Carolina biology, including a collection of natural history pieces written before 1860. I would not say that southerners continue to relive the Civil War, a claim sometimes made by northerners. However, I would say that they are very aware of their past. I think that history in general, not just that of the mid-19th century, is very important to them. However, 1860 definitely marks a pivotal time in that history, and so it’s not surprising that it is used as an ending or beginning point for many historical studies.
The first selection chosen by David Taylor (1998), the editor of this collection, is the one I found most memorable. It was written by John Lawson (?–1711), whose early history is unknown. He wrote of his travels in 1700 from Charleston, through western South Carolina, and on to the North Carolina coast. In an essay on “The Beasts of Carolina,” he tells of seeing buffalo, bears, panthers, mountain cats, wild cats, wolves, elk, deer, skunks, beavers, foxes, muskrats, raccoons, squirrels, and possums; the latter, oddly enough, he called the “wonder of all the animals” (p. 17). It is wondrous what a variety of mammals were in the area, to say nothing of birds, reptiles, and amphibians. The forest land of the Carolinas may be a safer place without some of these creatures, but it is also much less vibrant and intriguing.
Still, I did get to see a number of wonderful animal species later in my visit when we went to Brookgreen Gardens. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of this site until Laura wrote with her plans, yet it is one of the most beautiful and interesting places I’ve ever visited. An admission ticket is good for a week, which suggests how much there is to see. The heart of Brookgreen is the Sculpture Garden, which in itself is huge and which doesn’t contain all the hundreds of sculptures to be seen – they show up in surprising places throughout the gardens.
Brookgreen was founded by two New Yorkers, Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, and opened to the public in 1932. Huntington’s family had made their money on the intercontinental railroad, and he spent his life managing the donation of this fortune to a number of cultural institutions. The Huntingtons married in their early fifties, when Anna already had a flourishing career as a sculptor. They bought the 9000 acres, including four former plantations, that became Brookgreen to provide a venue to display her work and also because she had developed tuberculosis and the South Carolina climate provided an escape from New York winters.
Anna’s pieces have a hint of art deco in them, but her animal and human forms are realistic and magnificent. She really dedicated herself to her art. She did not like to work from photographs and required live models. Since she found animal forms more intriguing than human ones, this meant having some interesting guests at Atalaya, the home the Huntingtons built across the road from Brookgreen. To the side of stables is an enclosure that at one time housed a bear. Monkeys were also subjects, as were many dogs. When Anna was creating a statue of Don Quixote, she found a poor old horse that was in such bad shape that it needed to be put in a sling to keep it upright while “posing.” During his time as a model, he was fed and nursed so that he ended up being able to enjoy a few good years in the pasture.
Since Anna was so devoted to animals, it’s not surprising that Brookgreen includes a zoo, but it is not an ordinary zoo. It doesn’t have any monkeys or lions, just creatures that are native to the area, along with farm animals. The latter include guinea hens, cattle, sheep, and horses in a barnyard area. In addition, there are a number of other large enclosures stretched out along a trail that winds through the woods. One is populated with otters that have both an outdoor area and an enclosed pool for swimming, edged with rocks for the otters to climb. There is also an area with alligators and, behind it, a sculpture of an alligator. The same juxtaposition is found at the area for foxes, where we saw one fox bury food that his companion promptly dug up and ate. There’s a huge aviary that’s filled with South Carolina shorebirds. Luckily, they had just been fed, so they were all out eating and therefore easy to spot.
In addition to the aviary, there were several large cages housing birds of prey – two eagles in one, owls in another, hawks, and so on. These are birds that have been rescued after suffering injuries that made them unfit for life in the wild – for example, an owl blind in one eye and a bald eagle with a crippled wing. In one way it’s disturbing to see such magnificent creatures stuck in cages, even very ample ones. On the other hand, their presence gives people like me an opportunity to see them close-up and to get a new perspective on why these species are so important not only to an ecosystem but to our perception of nature.
Besides walking around Brookgreen, we also took one of the tram tours that are available. It went through what was formerly a plantation – though, besides a cemetery, there is little to indicate this. Most of the area has now returned to pine forest, and the trees that my son was particularly interested in were the longleaf pines, Pinus palustris. He is trying to grow several in his backyard and has become a student of what microenvironments seem to be most conducive to this species. He planted them as small seedlings last year, and it takes several years for them to even begin to grow a visible trunk. Before this, the seedlings remain in what is called the “grass” stage as they develop a deep tap root. Above ground, the plant looks much like a tuft of grass. So Geoff has to be patient, not his strongest suit, much like me; we may not be genetically related, but we still share some traits. At Brookgreen, the tram guide pointed out areas that had been burned over the past few years and where young longleaf pines were thriving. This is one of the species that not only can survive fires, but thrive after them. Fire supports the growth of seedlings because of the nutrients in ash.
The A.C. Moore Herbarium
I learned this and much more about the pines of South Carolina on the website of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina (http://herbarium.biol.sc.edu/pines.html). As I’ve mentioned before (Flannery, 2011), I have developed a passion for herbaria, and even though I was dying to see Laura and Geoff, I drove to Columbia as soon as I landed in Charleston. The next day, I had an appointment with John Nelson, the chief curator at the herbarium, who showed me around and told me about a number of projects he is undertaking in collaboration with Herrick Brown, the assistant curator. Along with several other duties, Brown is involved in the herbarium’s digitization efforts. While Nelson supports this work, he is leery of the field’s rush to scan specimens because he worries that this will lead to a move to eliminate specimens once they are scanned. However, as with any other image, looking at a scan is not the same as looking at the specimen itself. And to state the obvious, a scan can’t provide DNA or other chemicals for analysis.
I like to think that I’ve visited enough herbaria now to be able to get a sense of a particular institution’s vitality. If the people I meet are enthusiastic, if there are signs of active mounting of specimens, if the website is chock-full of information, and if there are certain areas that the herbarium prides itself on, then this is a healthy institution and fun to visit. A.C. Moore definitely fits this bill. It is bursting at the seams with wonderful specimens, to the point that Nelson is afraid that they soon won’t be able to accept species not found in the state. At the same time, specimens continue to be mounted and information digitized. Nelson has a well-thought-out strategy for building the collection. Unlike other herbarium directors, he thinks it’s important to document the cultivated plants growing in the state. In addition, when the herbarium wasn’t as overcrowded as it is now, he developed exchange programs with herbaria in Germany and Switzerland because otherwise, students wouldn’t have access to alpine plants. He also has appeared on Clemson University’s Making It Grow TV program for gardeners, as a form of outreach to the larger community (http://www.scetv.org/index.php/making_it_grow/show/making_it_grow_11-15-2011/).
Another one of the herbarium’s major projects is remounting specimens from the Henry W. Ravenel Collection, which is on permanent loan from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Ravenel (1814–1887) was a botanist and an expert on fungi of the Southeast. His career stretched from before to after the Civil War and is indicative of the kinds of problems others with an interest in science also faced in the South (Haygood, 1987). Ravenel had a plantation north of Charleston in Saint John’s and met with others interested in science from the area. He also had connections to the Charleston Museum and the College of Charleston. However, there was not the access to large libraries and collections that was available to those in the Northeast. This deficit was made up for, in part, by publishing articles in publications like Silliman’s Journal, one of the key communication vehicles for botanists of that time. Ravenel also maintained a wide correspondence with such figures as Asa Gray, for whom Ravenel collected specimens of the trees of the region. During this work, he rediscovered a rare tree, Pinus glabra, which hadn’t been seen since the 18th century. He got the identification right when others wrongly thought it was P. mitis; this gave him increased confidence in his botanical expertise. He also corresponded with the British expert on fungi, Miles Berkeley, and with William Henry Harvey, keeper of the University Herbarium of Dublin University. Meeting Ravenel on a visit to Charleston in 1849, Harvey wrote to William Henry Hooker at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, about the competent botanist he had met in the South.
Eventually, Ravenel decided to focus his attention on fungi. He and his fellow botanist, Moses Ashley Curtis, planned on issuing a set of dried specimens of South Carolina fungi. Though Curtis pulled out of the project before the first installment was produced, Ravenel ended up issuing five collections before 1860. After the war, botany became more than just an interest he pursued while managing his plantation. With the land and the economy in ruins, he sought to make a living by selling specimens to collectors in the North and in Europe. Gray at Harvard and George Engelmann, a noted botanist in St. Louis, both gave him the bad news that there wasn’t much of a market for specimens. Ravenel did make some income from collecting, later sending fungi to the German mycologist Felix von Thuemen. He also earned a little by publishing articles in agricultural journals. Toward the end of his life, he attempted to sell his herbarium for $1500 but could find no institution interested in the 11,000 different species represented there, half of them fungi.
After Ravenel’s death, his wife had a similar problem and eventually sold off the collection in pieces, with the flowering plants going to Converse College. These are the specimens that Nelson and his staff are working on now. It is wonderful to see the old, browned folders and specimen sheets. However, it’s even better to see the plants mounted on acid-free paper and with the old labels preserved on the new sheets. It’s really the best of both worlds and a much better fate than another portion of Ravenel’s collection met. Some specimens were sold to George Vanderbilt, who had a herbarium at his Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Unfortunately, the building that housed the collection was severely flooded in 1914 and all these specimens were lost. Those destroyed included not only Ravenel’s specimens, but ones from the Charleston Museum that had been sent to the Biltmore for “safekeeping” because the new museum curator in Charleston had found the herbarium in appalling conditions, with mice-nibbled sheets (Sanders & Anderson, 1999).
Before I left the University of South Carolina campus, I walked along the Horseshoe, a long green courtyard lined with the oldest buildings at the university. While the buildings are impressive, the trees there are even more so. This is obviously recognized by the institution because it has published a walking tour guide to the most magnificent trees in the historic part of the campus (http://herbarium.biol.sc.edu/treetour.html). Among them is a live oak, Quercus virginiana, draped with Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, a sight that is an icon of the South. Like most northerners, I didn’t know that Spanish moss is really a flowering plant related to, of all things, the pineapple (Miles, 2004). It is a saprophyte that doesn’t harm its host tree. Geoff is annoyed that his trees don’t have any moss, but here again, he has to be patient. He lives in a new development with young plantings – it takes time for relationships to develop. Brookgreen has impressive allée of live oaks with moss dangling from their limbs, but these trees are over 300 years old, dating back to pre–Civil War days, when the trees lined the road leading to the plantation house.
The Ecology of South Carolina
Writing about my trip makes me long to be back in the South, but fortunately I have my pile of books on the natural history of the area to keep me company. They include A Coast for All Seasons (Hayes & Michel, 2008), which is more about the geology than the biology of the South Carolina coast, but it’s a reminder of just how closely this science is linked to biology. The shifting sands determine where plant life can anchor itself, and the grasses that populate the dunes also help to determine the geology by slowing erosion. In addition, intertidal areas are some of the most species-rich of communities because they are the breeding grounds for so many organisms, particularly invertebrates. Unfortunately, humans are also attracted to shore regions, and many areas of the South Carolina coast have been heavily developed. That is why areas like Brookgreen Gardens are so important to sustaining wildlife populations.
I also read The Story of Sea Island Cotton (Porcher & Fick, 2005), about the extra-long-staple cotton that was grown along the Southeast coast until its production was finally done in by the boll weevil in the 1920s. This is a massive book that deals not only with how this type of cotton, Gossypium barbadense, was bred, cultivated, and then processed, but also covers the broader culture of the area, including the architecture of the buildings found on these plantations. No history of agriculture in the South can avoid the question of slavery, which made possible the labor-intensive, large-scale cultivation of cotton, rice, and tea, none of which occurs to any extent in South Carolina today. It’s even difficult to imagine what the land must have looked like at that time, with plantations extending over thousands of acres. Managing such enterprises was a massive undertaking, and Elizabeth Pringle (1913) has written a great book on what it was like for a woman to struggle against bankruptcy and run a rice plantation in the post–Civil War South, and with all the people-, equipment-, and weather-related problems this entailed.
As you can probably tell, I can’t wait to get back to South Carolina. Yes, I want to see Laura and Geoff, and, of course, their dog, Emma Rhett. (Yes, that’s her name; she’s definitely a Southern dog.) But I also want to see more of the state and learn more about its biology and its history, which are very much intertwined. Several of the major names in the natural history of the United States spent time in, and wrote about, South Carolina. Both John and William Bartram of Philadelphia traveled in what was then the colony of South Carolina, and William wrote about it in his Travels (1980). Mark Catesby and André Michaux were also early visitors to the area, and many of Catesby’s most compelling watercolors include South Carolina species (Meyers & Pritchard, 1998). John James Audubon not only traveled widely in the Carolinas, but his two sons married the two daughters of the South Carolina naturalist John Bachman (1790–1874). It seems to me impossible for a biologist to spend time in the state, and particular in its parks, preserves, and forests, and not be touched by this history.
I also have to admit that I want to return to South Carolina because the food is so good. I have developed a love for fried oysters and for Laura’s pecan and banana pancakes – with just-harvested pecans. In addition, I’ve read a wonderful article in The New Yorker, of all places, about Charleston chef Homer Sean Brock, who is trying to bring back the flavors of real South Carolina food, flavors that he thinks have been lost through the mass production of plants and animals (Bilger, 2011). He favors pork from Ossabow pigs, a breed whose ancestors were abandoned on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia in the 1500s. They are small, hardy animals with a rich layer of fat that makes them particularly flavorful. He also claims that the rice and peas used in making traditional Southern dishes are insipid today because the ingredients lack the flavors of older strains that he is attempting to resurrect. He is involved with a group of plant lovers who search for relict populations of plant breeds of the past in abandoned fields and gardens. They then grow them for seed, which, in turn, people like Brock cultivate on small farms. This article made my mouth water, and also made me appreciate plants in yet another way – as sources of human tradition as well as biological history.
I am hoping to have more time for eating, travel, family, and plants in the future. These are among the reasons that this is my last Biology Today article. February 2012 marked 30 years of this column. I always worried about holding on too long, about not quitting until I was asked to. However, over the past year my increasing interest in herbaria has made me want to spend more time studying them. For the first time in 30 years, I am beginning to begrudge the effort I put into Biology Today. So I think that it is time to stop and thank all who have read these columns over the years. I am particularly appreciative to those who have not only read my articles, but written to me about them. I am also grateful to the editors of ABT who have made my writing better than I could make it. Thank you all.
Note: I would like to thank Laura and Geoff Hendrick, the entire Bridgman family, and John Nelson of USC for showing me such wonderful southern hospitality.