Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Oconee Bells - Shortia galacifolia   Torrey & A. Gray
Members of Diapensiaceae:
Members of Shortia with account distribution info or public map:
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Section 6 » Order Diapensiales » Family Diapensiaceae
AuthorTorrey & A. Gray
DistributionRestricted to the southern mountains (one variety) and to the western Piedmont foothills (a second variety); thus, found only in a small percentage of the state. Natural occurrences are limited to just three counties (Transylvania, Jackson, and McDowell); records from several neighboring counties likely represent transplanted populations.

This is a very narrow Southern Appalachian endemic, found only from McDowell County on the east to Rabun County, GA, on the west. It also occurs in Oconee and Pickens counties, SC. Records from other states are probably of introductions, as this is a popular species for gardens and other plantings.
AbundanceThough fairly common to locally common in a small area of southwestern Transylvania County (mainly in Gorges State Park), it is a very rare species in the state. There are a handful of sites in McDowell County, but apparently it has not been found in suitable habitat in nearby Burke County. Sadly, much of its population and range was lost in the 1960s when Lake Jocassee was built, flooding a good percentage of the known population. The gorge taxon is State Special Concern, whereas the McDowell taxon is State Endangered. It is under threat mainly to collection for gardens and cultivation.
HabitatThe species occurs only in cool, moist, shaded microhabitats, generally along rocky stream banks, deep ravines, and steep slopes beneath various evergreen Rhododendron species. These are typically in the Acidic Cove Forest natural community.
See also Habitat Account for Acidic Montane Cove Forests
PhenologyBlooms in March and April, and fruits in July and August.
IdentificationThis is a low-growing sub-shrub with fairly large and glossy evergreen leaves. The several leaves are somewhat rounded, but are more square- or rectangular-shaped with rounded corners, averaging 2.5-3” long and nearly as wide. The similar Galax (Galax urceolata), which can grow with it, has thinner leaves that are clearly round or orbicular in shape; both have somewhat serrated leaves. The inflorescences are completely different, as Shortia has large white flowers growing singly on naked stems that are up to 4-5” tall. Several such stems and flowers are found on each plant, and the flowers (with five petals) are typically 1” across. This showy but scarce species should not present identification problems; however, you are not likely to discover any new (wild) populations. To see it, you likely will have to visit Gorges State Park or some other known locations.
Taxonomic CommentsOriginally the species was not subdivided into varieties (such as in RAB 1968); however, in recent decades most references agree on the two varieties - -the nominate S. galacifolia var. galacifolia (in the Tri-state region) and the northern S. galacifolia var. brevistyla (endemic to McDowell County, NC). Weakley (2020) tentatively elevates each variety to full species status, but stating that "Though the morphological characters are relatively minor and partially overlapping, their correlation with disjunct ranges and their likely influence on pollination and reproduction influence me to provisionally accept species rank, pending further research." The website editors prefer to leave these two taxa as varieties/subspecies, awaiting further studies.

Other Common Name(s)Shortia
State RankS2
Global RankG2G3
State Status[E,SC-V]
US Status
USACE-empFACU link
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