back to Fall Colors
NCNatural Interviews Dr. C. Ritchie Bell
& Dr. Anne H. Lindsey
Dr. C. Ritchie Bell, a PhD. in Botany, has
provided and shared with the world, a lifetime of acquired plant knowledge and
is an important figure in North Carolina's communities- both plant and human.
Formerly, North Carolina's State Botanist and the founder of the NC Botanical
Gardens at UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Bell has written or collaborated on the most
important plant reference and identification guides for NC, including the
definitive "Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolina's"
(co-authored with Albert E. Radford and Harry E. Ahles.) and "Wild Flowers
of North Carolina" (co-authored with William S. Justice). He is the recent
(1997) recipient of the Native Plant Conference' Life-time Achievement Award.
Although retired from teaching, Dr. Bell, with
his wife and collaborator, Dr. Anne H. Lindsey own
Laurel Hill Press, their
publishing company for the production of their excellent botanical guides,
books and videos. Their current series on Fall Colors covers the entire eastern
United States region. As well as being a superb botanist, Dr. Lindsey is also a
videographer and photographer who provides beautiful materials for their series
on Fall Color. Together they are able to wonderfully illustrate the nuances of
plant physiology and behavior and point out the relevance of the natural world
to our human lives. The Fall Colors and Woodland Harvests video has the added
benefit of narration by Dr. Bell's friend, the late Charles Kuralt. The
combination is a great artistically scientific celebration of nature. As Dr.
Bell said, "When you hear Charles (Kuralt) talking about the Hickories in
the fall, you can smell the wood smoke".
In August of 1997, NCNatural got to visit with
Dr. Bell and Dr. Lindsey at their home outside of Chapel Hill, NC. Dr. Bell is
one of the easiest people in the world to talk to. He shares his prodigious
knowledge with passion, southern charm and enthusiasm, punctuated with body
language and expressions of delight. Dr. Lindsey is his grounding force, gently
keeping him on track. We had a great time visiting with these naturalists and
are pleased to be able to share at least a part of the experience that we had
talking about a variety of topics, including Dr. Bell's personal relationship
to botany in the first half of the interview, and about the autumn color change
in the second half.
What attracted you to botany?
I've just always been interested in 'em and
when I was about 6 years old or thereabouts, my folks added a little sleeping
porch for me to live in onto our house. The bottom of it was open and I found
an old window sash someplace. I made a little greenhouse there by propping up
the window sash facing south and I had a flat of something I found - a box -
filled it with dirt, got some seeds from a neighbor lady and put them in there.
Just pure luck they were impatiens and in about three days, here came these
things up. Well boy, I was hooked! And so, as I say, I've been a botanist and a
capitalistic republican since age six.
Where did you grow up?
Asheville (North Carolina).
Mother was always interested in plants and we had a little garden. She belonged to the garden club.
Gosh, I guess when I was about twelve or thirteen, I entered a little display in one of the local garden club shows and obviously, being the only kid putting anything in that one section, I got first prize. So, y'know a little blue ribbon.
I just enjoy plants and enjoy teaching about them. That's why the botanical garden here (UNC-Chapel Hill) has the public service focus pitch that it does - because that's what I wanted to do. I was the "founding director" and after 25 years the idea is pretty well on track. I think we've got something that no other state has, in terms of a botanical garden with the public in mind.
As I try to impress upon people, plants are important. I put it very simply if you don't breathe and you don't eat, you don't need plants. You don't! But, if you do breathe and you do eat, you do need plants.
We have (recently) done for the National Park Service, and a consortium of other government agencies, some 60 second public service announcements. We did seven. We're working with the National Park Service people and we're trying to find a corporate sponsor (for the PSA's). What the government agencies are trying to do is create an awareness of plants.
See, a generation ago everybody was aware of
plants 'cause they were rural people. Today, people are just literally unaware
of plants. They don't hate them or anything. It's just that green stuff. That's
it. And so, this is to try to get on enough television screens enough times
through the year to rekindle an interest. Well, not an interest, no, an
awareness first, of plants, and then an interest, then concern, then
From that point you knew exactly what you
wanted to be doing?
Yeah. There was a certain amount of ego involved there because all the kids, y'know - "What do you want to do little boy?"- Oh, I'm going to be a soldier, I'm going to be a fireman, I'm going to be an engineer. "What do you want to do little boy?" Oh, I'm going to do botanical research. Boing! (laughs).
When I entered (UNC) Chapel Hill in '39, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and when I went to Berkeley, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I got out and the year I finished my degree at Berkeley, there were by actual count two jobs open in the United States in higher education in Botany. I got one of them.
And, as it turned out later that was the only
one, because the other one that was advertised was locked up by my friend Billy
Turner. He had just left it and gone to get his PhD and then was coming back.
So, in fact, I got the only job that was open.
Where was that?
University of Illinois - hiring a botanist.
You've made a lot of important contributions over the years to our
knowledge of plant identification and classification. Can you think of a time
when you discovered something that you really didn't expect, that really
Yeah! I got the biggest surprise of my life two
weeks ago (laughs). Up in Cullowhee (North Carolina) where I got this national
award for my contribution to the
But what "botanical" discovery?
Well the award sounds good. You can finish that
Well, I'll go get it because I haven't read the
fine print yet (laughs). I was speechless. For the first time in my life.
The Native Plant Conference gives the award to
people who have had lifelong service and contributions. Ritchie (Dr. Bell) was
the very surprised recipient this year. I've never seen Ritchie speechless
It was obviously unexpected and a great
I find things near every day. I mean, you find
things you don't expect all the time and that's the beauty of anything in
nature. I mean, we just don't really know very much.
How about your Angelica triquinata?
Yeah. That's still a puzzle. You find these things and you still don't know.
There's a plant that we've worked on some - Angelica triquinata - about so high (indicates about 4 ft.). It grows up on Roan Mountain and we've spent many a day up there. We go up and we fold aluminum foil over the flower heads in the evening and then we go back in the morning and each plant has a good load of nectar. Nothings dropped in it. We can siphon it off for analysis. We've never found out what it is, but the point is that it's an absolute intoxicant for insects - for wasps and hornets and bees.
You'll see a flower head like Queen Anne's Lace except it's green, and these bugs - maybe 20 or 30 - just bumbling, bumping into each other. And then, if you tap the stalk - I mean you wouldn't dare touch it. They'd sting you to death it looks like. But if you tap the stalk, Thump. They just fall off. So one time I tapped the stalk, and I had my jacket down there, and "thump", and I tried to see what happened. I timed it out to see. Well, it takes about 20 - 30 seconds before they start "bzzzt" (wings moving). They get their motors warmed up and then after about 45 seconds they start weaving and wobbling and arising.
I was intrigued by that damn thing
tried the nectar - didn't do a thing for me.
It's amazing because it's an open flower like
all of those umbels and yet it produces a prodigious amount of nectar. It's an
Those bugs are just stoned out of their minds.
They just drop.
Is it endemic to Roan Mountain?
No, it's found up through the Appalachians at
higher elevations. It should be coming into bloom soon - mid August into
It sounds like something I've seen up by Craggy
Gardens (on the Blue Ridge Parkway, north of Asheville).
Yup! Exactly. Craggy's got a big patch of it.
It's got big cut leaves and big green flowers.
The deer love it.
You've found some Sarracinia (Pitcher Plant)
I've found some Sarracinia hybrids.
You've named some species?
Yeah. We've named a number of hybrids and a couple of umbelifers. (*Umbelifers- plants with flowering parts that have stalks supporting a single flower or a flower cluster, arising from a single point.)
We found a few things when we were doing the
big green book (Vascular Flora of the Carolinas by Albert E. Radford, Harry E.
Ahles & C. Ritchie Bell). We were very interested in plotting distributions
of things. There were some rather interesting things. How did this plant (a
Sarracinia) get up into Lincoln County for god's sake? And until we completed
the South Carolina map (of distribution) we didn't know. It looked like an
absolute disjunct but it isn't, because it goes all the way down through South
Carolina and back up into Lincoln County. It's part of a big arc these plants
make. There's just lots of stuff.
Let me ask you some Fall color questions. How
do you predict this season to be in comparison to other years in regards to
intensity of color, or is it too early to tell?
Predictions are very tricky. Fall color depends
pretty much on the regular season, PLUS then, what happens in the last two or
three weeks and if it turns out too dry the last two or three weeks, a lot of
trees literally dry up and they're still sort of green and then they fall off.
If it gets too wet, as we had a few years ago, they don't turn. As a matter of
fact you'll see leaves that literally rot on the trees. This fortunately is not
the usual case, but it happens enough that you need to be aware.
Do you cover this in "Fall Color &
Yup, sure do.
What makes good color is just adequate rainfall through the season, and the
light changes. I think I point out in there, fall color starts the
22nd of June.
Right after the solstice, as the photoperiod
That (the solstice) is the one thing that's
been going on for millions of years. That's the trigger for so many things. As
a matter of fact, I try to point out, usually about Christmas, 4 or 5 days
after the shortest day of the year, the tufted titmice, boy, their hormones
change and they're singing it! And that triggers it - that little extra
daylight. We can't even tell the difference, but the birds can. It's really a
neat clock that things are set to.
This season seems (1997) so odd. It seems to be
feast or famine in terms of rainfall. The dryness is not good for it.
Nah, this dryness will be alright. Let's see,
if we get some good rains in September and then some cool
nights, we'll get some pretty nice color. Cool nights and adequate rain. You
can sit here now and say it could be a miserable fall, it could be too dry or
too wet, or it could be beautiful.
Last year some people predicted that it wasn't
going to be a very good color year at all and in the mountains, it was
It was great.
I really think it's much more local too. I
remember one year when the northern mountains were gorgeous but then the
southern mountains had a huge storm system come through (and blew the leaves
Yeah. Oh, yeah. One thing you have to keep in mind when you're dealing with the entire eastern seaboard is, it's the forest composition. I'm careful to point out that New England does have the most spectacular, the most brilliant color, for a very good reason. We have only a relatively few species of trees involved which obviously all get the same color, all at the same time.
Plus, that far north their (fall color) season
is only about three weeks. So here you have a three week window and everything
that's gonna turn's gotta turn. And they're mostly three species, or four, of
Aspens, Maples, Birches. Two species of Maple-
sugar and red.
So WHAP! There it is. In three weeks.
But, if you want really a long season, lots of
color, changing color, a tapestry of color, you go down to West Virginia, or
the rest of Virginia, Pennsylvania, the Smokies. There you've got many, many
more species of trees involved and they come on in their own good time and
they'll color and you'll have six weeks, or more, of color. Twice the season
Although there's usually a peak in there.
Oh yeah there's a peak.
But, you watch, you'll see some yellows, some
Tulip Poplars, will be yellowing in about a month (mid-September in NC) and
they will come and go but you won't see those bare limbs out there, so when it
colors up again it's just a change of color.
Up in New England, the yellows are provided by
the Aspens instead of the Poplars, so you really just have that yellow and that
red that makes it so gorgeous, but then when you get down here, you get those
golden Hickories that are so wonderful, and then also Maples. The diversity
down here is so incredible.
How about a more technical analysis of Fall
What color are those leaves right now? Well, they're green. But if you take away the chlorophyll what color are they? They're bright yellow because the xanthophylls are the yellow pigments. People didn't even know what they did (until recently), but it turns out the xanthophylls are the actual light energy receptors, not the chlorophyll. So the xanthophylls catch it (light energy) and hand it over to the chlorophyll. The chlorophyll makes it into chemical energy.
You see this beautifully in tropical stuff and in rhododendron, evergreens, holly, when the chlorophyll dies, which it does - it's being continually replaced. (They turn bright yellow). And cool nights just stop that replacement. So, as the replacement of the chlorophyll in the leaf stops or slows - well, looky there - that leaf's turning yellow, right before your eyes. Over a period of about three days, as the chlorophyll's gone, that leaf turns yellow.
Now, if the leaf was really productive in
photosynthesis and was making a lot of sugars and stuff, well, just before the
leaf falls something called an abscission layer forms between the leaf stalk
and the trunk of the tree so the tree doesn't bleed. It prevents bleeding when
the leaf falls. Well, that's great, but if you're a sugar molecule and you're
in the leaf and somebody closes the gate, what do you do? Well, you're stuck.
And if there's a lot of sugar molecules in there, the chemical changes that
then go on in the leaf convert it into anthocyanins, the red pigment.
Some species must already have a lot of
Oh yeah. They could have - like Sweet Gums. The horticultural varieties of things that have those dark red leaves. But generally, red is a secondary compound that is formed as the leaf prepares to drop.
The really interesting thing that I like to tell people is that there is no known biological importance or value to color change. It is a gratuitous by-product of the metabolic seasonal change. And it's free!
© 1999 NCNatural
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