Remembering NC Wildflower Expert C. Ritchie Bell

C. Ritchie Bell at N.C. Botanical Gardens in 1978. Photo by Hugh Morton.

C. Ritchie Bell at N.C. Botanical Gardens in 1978. Photo by Hugh Morton.

The beauty and abundance of the native flowers of eastern America was impressive even to the earliest explorers and colonists, and the early reports and letters sent back to Europe often made reference to the variety of plants in the New World and to their uses. Although land was cleared for crops, trees were cut for fuel and shelter, and many plants were gathered by the settlers for food, medicine, and dye, with such vast lands and so few inhabitants, there was probably little change in the native flora for more than two centuries after colonization began…..During the past century, however, the tremendous increase in the population and the more rapid and extensive clearing of the forests and other changes of the surface of the earth by man has had a profound effect on our native vegetation. This is especially true in the case of many of the more showy species collectively known as “Wild Flowers.” Because of their delicately balanced adaptation to very specific natural environments, many wild flowers cannot grow in habitats that have been altered or disturbed, nor can they compete with the plants of the more weedy introduced species that rapidly invade the vast areas of land opened or altered by the machines of man for roads, farms, dwellings, and industrial complexes. Thus the balance continues to shift so that today many of our most attractive native plants are near extinction except within the boundaries of parks, natural areas, and gardens set aside for preservation of interesting natural habitats and their associated plant and animal species….

If given adequate light, water, and soil conditions, many of the native plants that once formed the “Natural Gardens of North Carolina” are equally as colorful and interesting, or even more so, than related horticultural varieties. The purpose of this book is to make easier the recognition of some of these flowers and thereby to stimulate a greater interest in this beautiful natural resource and accent the need for its preservation.

from Wild Flowers of North Carolina by William S. Justice and C. Ritchie Bell. The book, first published in 1968, has served for more than four decades as one of the standard reference guides for those walking the woods of the Tar Heel state. Bell, who was instrumental in the founding of the North Carolina Botanical Gardens in Chapel Hill and its first director, died on March 6, 2013. His longtime colleagues have assembled a web page recognizing his contributions to the understanding of North Carolina’s native flora.