Have you met Oconee Bells?
If you are lucky enough to live in Asheville, all you have to do to find it is walk along the Botanical Garden’s wooded path and you’ll find a big stand of them.
If you live elsewhere it might be a little harder…
It turns out that it is a very rare wildflower native to the area. Back in 1788, a French botanist named Andre Michaux ‘discovered’ it and found that it had not yet been identified. He brought a specimen back to an herbarium in Paris where it stayed somewhat ignored until American botanist Asa Gray ‘re-discovered’ the specimen there in 1839. Grey recognized that the plant was a new discovery and set out to find it in nature, using notes Michaux made on where he had found it. He searched for two years but never found it. He gave it the Latin name of Shortia galacifolia. Shortia for a fellow botanist named Charles Short who would never live to see the plant and galacifolia for the leaves’ resemblance to galax.
In 1877 it was finally found again (in a different location) by George Hyams outside of Marion, NC who at the time was a teenager and was not an educated botanist. Asa Gray was also able to see the plant in the wild but not in the original spot that Michaux found.
Last Saturday I took a walk through the Botanical Gardens looking for Oconee Bells and was so pleased to meet a new and captivating plant. It’s a small plant, short with small flowers that aren’t very tall themselves. I took some pictures and asked it quickly what its plant spirit medicine was about. I started to get an idea of it, and decided to come back the next day with watercolors to sit with it a little longer and get to know it.
It’s been a very, very long time since I had done any watercolor and I don’t know the last time I sat outside and painted a flower from life- maybe never? It was such a warm and sunny day and so many people came by to admire Oconee Bells. A group of women stopped to photograph them, two toddlers very gently caressed the flowers, an elderly couple reveled in the plant’s loveliness. No one walked by without at least stopping to take a closer look at the flowers.
After I had finished the painting, I felt that I had a bit of an understanding of what the plant spirit medicine was, but it wasn’t complete. Usually, flower essences have a particular trait- they are going to help on an emotional level in a very specific way. For example, Dandelion flower essence is specific for people who hold emotional tension in their muscles and body causing them pain, or Yarrow flower essence is specifically for people who are overly sensitive to other people’s emotions and feelings and need help differentiating between what is theirs and what is not and keeping their boundaries strong. Or read my take on Foam Flower.
Oconee Bells felt different in that it wasn’t there to help with a particular condition. It felt like it was the guardian of the medicine of the earth or the keeper of secret plant knowledge. Not secret because people aren’t supposed to know it but secret because most people don’t work hard enough (hard enough is possibly not quite right- quietly enough?) to understand plants on an energetic level. It felt like it was an ally for those plant loving people who are out there in the wold loving plants with their whole beings and connecting with them with their whole hearts. That it could help them to have a better understand of other plants, and initiate them into a deeper knowing of the plant world. Not through ingesting the flower essence, but through sitting with the plant itself and connecting with it (or connecting with it energetically if you are not able to find it alive in the wild). I kept asking for more! I begged, tell me more! Tell me what you’re about- what do you mean? Then I heard a very subtle sound across the path and in the leaves.
See that little snake?! I stomped a bit so it knew I was there and it stopped to check me out. I’m not very familiar with animal totems so I would be interested in YOUR take on what this little snake might mean. It slithered right up to the Oconee Bells in the foreground, hung around and stared at me and tasted the air a while in all directions, then turned around and went back to where it came from.
I know the plant and the snake are connected. I wonder if it was ever used medicinally or spiritually by Native Americans in the area- maybe the Oconee after which they are named.
I felt like Oconee Bells has more to say. I’ll have to go back and sit with it again to see what that might be.
Turns out there is a Gillian Welch song about Oconee Bells! Such a beautiful song at that.
The fairest bloom the mountain knows
Is not an iris or a wild rose
But the little flower of which I’ll tell
Known as the brave Acony Bell
Just a simple flower so small and plain
With a pearly hue and a little known name
But the yellow birds sing when they see it bloom
For they know that spring is coming soon
Well it makes its home mid the rocks and the rills
Where the snow lies deep on the windy hills
And it tells the world “Why should I wait
This ice and snow is gonna melt away”
And so I’ll sing that yellow bird’s song
For the troubled times will soon be gone
Anyone else out there have an experience with Oconee Bells they’d like to share?