André Michaux

Discovery Gallery

Carolina Lily, Lilium michauxiiMany plants have been named for André Michaux. The most spectacular of these is the rare Carolina Lily, Lilium michauxii. In 2003 the North Carolina Legislature enacted a law making this lovely wild flower the official wild flower of the state of North Carolina. The Carolina Lily is much smaller and displays fewer flowers than the Turk’s Cap Lily, Lilium superbum, which is more likely to be found at higher elevations. Lilium michauxii is found as far west as east Texas and as far north as Virginia.

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Michaux Discoveries

While plants have been named in Michaux’s honor, his name is primarily known from the plants that he himself named, not those named for him by others. Writing in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society in 1937, Rodney True noted the persistence of the name Michaux in botanical textbooks. True reported this was due almost entirely to the explorations, critical study and accurate description of plants collected by André Michaux who was remembered as a discoverer of many plants new to science. Examining the 7th edition of Gray’s Manual of Botany, which covers the northeastern and north central United States, True concluded that André Michaux was responsible for naming 24 new genera and 293 new species of flowering plants found in Gray’s Manual.

Forty-two years later, David Rembert, writing in Castanea, The Journal of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society, reported similar findings. Examining The Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas for Michaux’s species, Rembert noted that Michaux had named 26 genera and 283 species native to the much smaller geographic area of North and South Carolina.

True and Rembert each noted that approximately one-third of the species Michaux named had subsequently been placed in other genera by later researchers, but remarked at the persistence of Michaux names in spite of over a century of critical study by later botanists. Neither study fully embraced the geographic sweep of Michaux’s explorations. The French botanist collected from Florida north to Hudson Bay and west to Missouri.

One of the geographic gaps of our knowledge of Michaux’s plants has been filled with the 2002 publication by the University Press of Florida of the book Michaux in Florida by Walter Taylor and Eliane Norman.

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Oconee Bells - Shortia galacifolia

Oconee Bells, Shortia galacifolia André Michaux is best known for discovering and naming hundreds of plants new to science. However, the plant most often associated with André Michaux is one he collected but did not name, Shortia galacifolia commonly known as the Oconee Bells.

Oconee Bells, Shortia galacifolia This herbaceous evergreen ground cover, which blooms early in spring, is found in only a few places in the mountains of NC and SC. Excellent displays of this plant may be found at Devils Fork State Park, SC.

For many years Duke Energy Company owned much of the land where the Oconee Bells are found and Duke scientists have a special interest in this species. These photos are from the collections of Duke scientists John Garton and Robert Siler.

Oconee Bells, Shortia galacifolia The story associated with the naming and subsequent search for this plant is perhaps the very best story of nineteenth century American botany. Visiting Paris in 1839 young American botanist Asa Gray found a specimen of the plant in Michaux’s herbarium and learned it had never been classified. Gray seized the opportunity to name the plant for Kentucky botanist Charles W. Short. After returning to America Gray arranged a trip to the "high mountains of Carolina" where Michaux’s note indicated he had found the plant. Gray’s search, and further searches by every botanist who visited the Southern Appalachians for nearly the next half century, failed to find the plant. The rediscovery of the "lost Shortia" became a goal for many botanists, but all were unsuccessful and the plant’s whereabouts remained shrouded in mystery.

Shortia was eventually rediscovered, not by a searching botanist, but by seventeen year-old George Hyams near Marion, NC in 1877. Subsequently, a decade later, and virtually one hundred years after the French botanist’s visit, Shortia was found in the Oconee County, SC locale where Michaux had encountered it. Asa Gray eventually did get to see Shortia in its native habitat, but he never visited the locale where Michaux had found the plant.

Purple Laurel, Rhododendron catawbienseMichaux’s reference to the "high mountains of Carolina" proved misleading to Gray and other botanists. Knowing of Michaux’s ascents of the highest peaks in the southern mountains, they anticipated finding the plant at a high elevation. However, the Oconee County sites where Michaux encountered the plant actually have an elevation of only about 1000 feet. However, Michaux’s reference to "high mountains" becomes understandable in the context of his earliest journeys to the mountains in 1787 and 1788. At that time, climbing to the headwaters of tributaries of the Savannah River near the present town of Highlands, NC (elevation 3,835 feet), he believed that he was in the high mountains of Carolina. Indeed he was in high mountains, but these were not the highest mountains he visited in the region. In later journeys he approached the southern mountains by traveling along the Catawba River through the central Piedmont of NC. Following this route, Michaux reached peaks over 5,000 feet including the summits of Roan and Grandfather Mountains. Gray and others understandably, but incorrectly, assumed that his reference to collecting this plant in the high mountains meant these much higher peaks Michaux visited later.

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Purple Laurel - Rhododendron catawbiense

Purple Laurel, Rhododendron catawbiense Perhaps the greatest treasure for horticulture of Michaux’s North American discoveries was the Rhododendron catawbiense, commonly known as the Catawba Rhododendron or Purple Laurel. Found in the wild on the peaks of some of the highest mountains in the Southern Appalachians, and in a few places in the Piedmont, this evergreen shrub is one of the genetic parents of many beautiful rhododendron hybrids.

Rhododendron catawbiense is the signature plant of the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. This close-up of the flower found throughout our web pages is from the collection of Mike Bush, former Executive Director of the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. Used by permission.

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Bigleaf Magnolia - Magnolia macrophylla

Cap Love w/Magnolia macrophylla Michaux’s most exciting discovery from the Carolina Piedmont was Magnolia macrophylla, the Bigleaf Magnolia. Shown here holding a flower is Edgar "Cap" Love Jr. owner of Magnolia Grove, an 1824 residence in Lincoln County, NC listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Magnolia Grove boasts both the earliest and the longest continuous use of Bigleaf Magnolias in landscaping to be found in NC. Peter Smith, the father of the builder of Magnolia Grove, was one of André Michaux’s hosts in 1789. Elizabeth Rinehart Love, "Cap" Love’s late wife, was a descendant of Peter Smith and Christian Reinhart. Both of these early settlers were Michaux’s hosts in the area.

Bigleaf Magnolia, Magnolia macrophylla Rare and seldom seen in NC, though found in greater numbers in a few states to the west of the Appalachians, Michaux’s Magnolia macrophylla is a tree of superlatives. It boasts the largest flowers and largest simple leaves of any tree native to temperate North America. The flowers, which often have purple spots at the base of the petals, may be up to a foot and a half in diameter, and the leaves may be a foot wide and up to three feet long. In his journal, in which he recorded thousands of miles of travel, André Michaux mentioned finding this unusual tree only in the Carolina Piedmont and in the Cumberland region of Tennessee.

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Spear-Leaved Yellow Violet - Viola hastata

Spear-Leaved Yellow Violet - Viola hastata Michaux was interested in all plants whether they were large and showy or small and inconspicuous. He noticed the smallest plants growing on the forest floor. Until Michaux collected and named it, this small yellow violet was not known to science. Michaux mentioned it several times in his journal and gave it the name Viola hastata in his FLORA. The name reflects the distinctive shape of the leaves. Each leaf is shaped like an arrowhead or spearhead and the botanical Latin word for this shape is hastate. In spring, this violet briefly brightens the forest floor in both the southern mountains and in the Piedmont.

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Flame Azalea - Rhododendron calendulaceum

Flame Azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum The flame azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum, which so delighted William Bartram when he observed it in the southern mountains, is among the shrubs named by Michaux. The genus was later changed from Azalea to Rhododendron, but Michaux’s specific epithet calendulaceum describing the marigold-orange color of the flower was retained. The flowers may actually exhibit a wide range of colors from fiery red-oranges to soft yellows.

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Umbrella-Leaf - Diphylleia cymosa

Umbrella-Leaf, Diphylleia cymosa Michaux was often the first to find unusual plants endemic to the Southern Appalachians. Umbrella-Leaf, Diphylleia cymosa, pictured here is found infrequently. It prefers to grow only on rich seepage slopes. Each plant produces a leaf one to two feet in diameter. The large leaves make its white flowers seem tiny in comparison.

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Spring Beauty - Claytonia caroliniana

Spring Beauty, Claytonia caroliniana Michaux often found a new species that would have appeared to be a well-known species to an untrained observer. The lovely little Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginia named for the 18th century Virginia botanist John Clayton by Linnaeus, is a widespread plant that had been known to botanists for many years. Michaux, however, discovered a different species of Spring Beauty with wider leaves than this earlier known species. He christened the new species Claytonia caroliniana.

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Trillium - Trillium grandiflorum

Trillium grandiflorium Trillium grandiflorum is a North Carolina wildflower discovered by André Michaux.
Photo credit: Jean Woods, North Carolina Wild Flower Preservation Society. Used by permission.

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Stonecrop - Sedum ternatum

Stonecrop Stonecrop is a North Carolina wildflower discovered by André Michaux.
Photo credit: Jean Woods, North Carolina Wild Flower Preservation Society. Used by permission.

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Blue Cohosh - Caulophyllum thalictroides

Blue Cohosh - Caulophyllum thalictroides Blue Cohosh is a North Carolina shrub discovered by André Michaux.
Photo credit: Jean Woods, North Carolina Wild Flower Preservation Society. Used by permission.

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Fever-Tree - Pinckneya pubens

Fever Tree - Pinckneya pubens Shown here is Redouté's illustration of the Fever-Tree, Pinckneya pubens, from Michaux’s FLORA OF NORTH AMERICA, 1803. The FLORA and Michaux’s OAKS were both illustrated with drawings by Pierre J. Redouté. The artist would become the most celebrated botanical illustrator of the age. Redouté later found a patroness with the largesse to support his talent in Napoleon’s Empress Josephine. With her financial support, Redouté created some of the most celebrated illustrations of flowers the world has ever known.

The common name Fever Tree suggests the tree’s important medicinal properties. Plants with medicinal properties were especially important to early botanists. The Fever-Tree, Pinckneya pubens, was such a plant. Found in a few places along the Southeastern coast, this tree was used by local inhabitants as a cure for fever.

Most of Michaux’s hundreds of plant names were descriptive of the plant, or sometimes of the locale where he found it. Magnolia macrophylla translates literally as big leaf magnolia; the Rhododendron catawbiense was found near the headwaters of the Catawba River. However, in the case of Pinckneya pubens, Michaux exercised his discoverer’s privilege of naming plants by honoring a friend. Charles Coatesworth Pinckney was a helpful friend to both André and François André Michaux. Pinckney, who belonged to a leading Charleston family, was an important political and military leader, and US diplomat.

This is only a sampling of the plants named by André Michaux. A list of plants native to the Carolinas named by André Michaux is available from the plant database.

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