Perspectives Online

The 'Practical 
Plant Ecologist' The College joins in honoring pioneer scientist B.W. Wells and the Big Savannah. By Art Latham

The Big Savannah, with snowy orchids in bloom, as Wells photographed it.

A superb teacher, charismatic, vigorous, liberal, generous, enthusiastic. Even at 90, sparks came out of his head."

This description of the late Dr. Bertram Whittier Wells, a quote from Julie Moore of the N.C. Natural Heritage Program, is prominently featured at an N.C. State University exhibit in his honor at D.H. Hill Library's renovated east wing.

Wells, who served for three decades as an N.C. State researcher and educator until his 1954 retirement, was sometimes controversial in his day. But his pioneering research efforts in ecology have proven he was simply ahead of his time.

B.W. Wells
To honor the memory of the peripatetic trail-blazing ecologist, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University Libraries and the N.C. Agricultural Foundation Inc. recently opened the exhibit and a permanent archive of Wells-related materials in the library.

For much of his professional life and into retirement, Wells (1884-1978) documented and taught about a stunningly pristine, flower-strewn 1,500-acre upland grass/sedge bog he called the "Big Savannah of Pender County," which he first saw from a train window in 1920 on a spring research trip to Wilmington.

He compared the then-unfarmed area to a "huge garden thickly planted on a well-kept lawn." Such an impression did the dazzling floral array make on Wells that he redirected his research and writings from studies of tree galls (abnormal swellings on the plant) to North Carolina's varied ecology. He spent years trying to conserve the Big Savannah, a battle he lost when crops were planted on the site in the late 1950s. But through good luck and the generosity of benefactors, a similar, albeit smaller site - the B.W. Wells Savannah - is now being restored near the original savannah.

Wells first wrote extensively of the savannah in his 1924 Major Plant Communities of North Carolina and in an article, "The Patchwork of North Carolina's Green Quilt," appearing serially in North Carolina Agriculture and Industry (fall 1924 to winter 1925). He published his first scientific paper on the area with colleague Dr. Ivan Shunk in a 1928 North Carolina Agricultural Research Station technical bulletin.

The NCSU Libraries exhibit includes hand-colored glass slides by Wells of North Carolina wildflowers and plants, including (from top) blue butterwort, Venus flytraps and the bog dog-laurel.
Archival images: B. W. Wells Lantern Slides, University Archives Photograph Collection, UA 023.039, Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, North Carolina
One of the first scientists to write and lecture about ecology and discuss plants in terms of communities and succession vegetation, Wells traveled statewide with his unwieldy Graflex camera, defining and documenting ecological zones - plant communities he called "natural gardens" - describing the plants in each and the environmental conditions that explained their location. Technologically adept, he also created a set of glass plate images - photos, some hand-tinted - of our state's landscapes and plants for the numerous lectures he presented to students, scientific societies, gardening clubs and others.

Born in Ohio in 1884, Wells held an undergraduate botany degree from The Ohio State University and a doctorate from the University of Chicago. He taught at several universities until 1919, when he came to what was then N.C. State College, where he became chairman of the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, a position he held until 1949.

Among Wells' other pioneering research interests were the effects of salt spray on coastal vegetation and of fire on maintaining succession vegetation. His areas of work included Bald Head Island vegetation, blueberry cultivation, mountain "balds" and the possible meteoritic formation of the Carolina Bays.

He also helped prevent the state Legislature from banning the teaching of evolution in public schools, in the 1920s.

Wells published his findings and photographs in a broad range of scientific journals and popular publications, including, with the encouragement and assistance of the North Carolina Gardening Club, the 1932 classic, The Natural Gardens of North Carolina. (UNC Press published the still-popular book's revised second edition in 2002.) Wells produced the purposefully nontechnical work, he said, to help the amateur plant lover learn the common names of the herbaceous wild flowers.

"Successful gardeners," he said, "are always practical plant ecologists."

A road to the Big Savannah area as it appears now (top) and as it looked in Wells' day.
Top photo by Art Latham

Bottom photo: Archival images: B. W. Wells Lantern Slides, University Archives Photograph Collection, UA 023.039, Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, North Carolina
In this book, he moves from the Atlantic Coast westward, identifying several major "natural gardens"-: sand dune, salt marsh, freshwater marsh, swamp forest, aquatic vegetation, evergreen shrub bog (or pocosin), grass-sedge bog (or savannah), sandhill, old-field community, upland forest and high mountain spruce-fir forest.

Wells retired from N.C. State in 1954 but continued as an ecological researcher, educator and conservationist almost until his death in 1978. He died believing that such areas as the Big Savannah were lost forever.

But history, to paraphrase an old adage, is written by the survivors, and Wells no doubt would have been encouraged by a recent turn of events.

In the late 1990s, Richard LeBlond, a North Carolina Natural Heritage Program researcher, identified a 117.4-acre parcel five miles north of the original savannah as ecologically similar and with the same soil and hydrological conditions that produced the original. The area hadn't reverted to forest - thanks to electric power companies' mowing operations, which resembled the effects of annual burning - keeping the habitat open and suitable for savannah plants.

A coordinated fund-raising effort by the Coastal Land Trust and the Conservation Trust, private and corporate donors, including Progress Energy, provided nearly enough money to buy the savannah. Additional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Coastal Land Trust funds clinched the purchase in April 2002, and the B.W. Wells Savannah was dedicated that June.

Above, a cotton field now occupies part of the land that was known as the Big Savannah. Travelers in the 1920s and '30s who arrived at a station in Pender County were treated to a view of an upland bog and its flowers.
Top photo by Art Latham

Archival images: B. W. Wells Lantern Slides, University Archives Photograph Collection, UA 023.039, Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, North Carolina
The new site needed management, and several people said so. The N.C. Coastal Land Trust was assisted by an advisory committee that included many of the site's original proponents: LeBlond and Michael Schafale of the N.C. Natural Heritage Program, as well as Donna Wright, Dr. Jon Stucky and Dr. Tom Wentworth, all of the College's Plant Biology Department.

With program grants from the FWS's Partners for Fish and Wildlife and the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Wildlife Habitat Incentives, the Coastal Land Trust began to restore the land to a condition more naturally reflecting the historic effects of periodic fires.

"With each successive fire, the B.W. Wells Savannah will become increasingly open, with conditions more conducive to the spectacular floral displays Wells described in the 1920s and 1930s," says Wentworth. "The vegetation in the power line rights-of-way will provide seed for colonizing newly opened areas. And some savannah species, including pitcher plants, still persist in the pond pine woodland, although suppressed by the dense woody canopy."

Recently, Wade Wall, graduate student in the College's Plant Biology Department, conducted surveys of an adjacent tract owned by attorney Joseph Taylor and his wife, Virginia. There Wall discovered Venus flytraps, raising hopes that what Wells once called "the most wonderful plant in the world" will once again bloom near the original Big Savannah site.

"The Taylors' genuine interest in conservation and education has made it a pleasure to interact with them," says Wentworth, who is Wall's thesis adviser. "For example, on days when we have been collecting data on his property, Joe commonly takes time to meet us in the field to discuss management plans for the site. And he has allowed our graduate students to live on his property while conducting research."

The restored site and the current exhibit no doubt would have pleased Wells: His legacy lives on.