While many folks have heard about Oconee Bells, Shortia galacifolia, and even know there only places these grow are specific locations along the SC/NC state line, few people have ever actually seen them. And there is a reason for this, actually, several reasons.
- Trail guides won’t disclose locations. Either the writers don’t know the location or they’ve run into the same roadblocks all the rest of us have. Nobody will tell.
- Wildlife and DNR officials are tight-lipped with location information. They will cite the rarity of the plant and the delicate environment they grow in. A local group of bear hunters have had one of their traditional camp sites closed to them because of a “rare plant” in the area, but the DNR personnel would not give them the name of the rare plant involved.
- Locals don’t know the plant by the name Oconee Bell. The local name is Colt’s Foot because the leaf is shaped like a horse’s hoof.
- Locals don’t know about the rarity of the plant, regardless of the name they know it by.
So finding a stand of Oconee Bells is really, really difficult. No information is given in the guides. Ask a DNR representative face-to-face and they won’t tell you. Ask a local and they can’t tell you because they won’t be familiar with the Oconee Bell name.
And there are even more, more practical reasons:
- The plants are only found at certain altitudes (about 700 ft to 2200 ft) on the mountain sides. You may be in the right area and even on the right stream, but if you’re at the wrong altitude, you won’t find any Oconee Bells.
- Once you’re at the right altitude, you have to find the right environment that nurtures the plants. They don’t grow in the open woods but they do grow in great numbers where they are happy.
- The remoteness of their habitat is a deterrent. Unless you’re willing to drive for miles down steep, rough, rocky, unpaved, twisty mountain roads you won’t be able to access their habitat. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.
- Areas with Oconee Bells are often closed to vehicle traffic. Even the mountain roads are only open for brief periods during the year, turkey and bear season. Closing of the roads is due to the environmental fragility of the area, in particular, habitats of the Oconee Bell and Peregrin Falcons. You can still enter the habitats during these times, but expect a long and difficult hike.
But, having said all that, they can be found. Research will provide information on locations. And just keep talking to hikers and local mountain folks. You’ll find somebody who knows where they are.