Larry Mellichamp—A Leader

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Larry was always a leader from the beginning of his involvement with botany in North Carolina. He became involved with the North Carolina Native Plant Society in 1977 when he came to work at UNCC. Here are some remembrances of people who knew Larry from the early days. Ken Moore was president of the NCNPS in 1977 when Larry first became active. Jean, Will, and Ken worked with Larry from the 1990s as leaders and participants in the Society. Here are their remembrances.

Larry’s Impact on Me, by Jean Woods
Leadership, Humor, And Friendship – A Gift to Us All, by Dr. Ken Bridle
Larry T. Mellichamp, the Plantsman of his Time!, by Ken Moore
A Man Who Wore Many Hats, by Will Stuart

Larry’s Impact on Me

By Jean Woods

Larry connected me to the world of plants and the Charlotte botanical community. Photo by Lisa Tompkins

I first met Dr. Mellichamp (as I knew him then) when I signed up for Dendrology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte (UNCC). Plants were becoming my obsession – their proper names, locations, habits, and their beauty. In the mid 1990s there was no place that I could find to learn about the plants I saw in the woods, along the road, and in ditches. In a desperate effort to assuage my growing passion, I decided to take courses at UNCC. When I called for more information, I was eventually connected to Larry, who told me to take Dendrology, which I had never heard of.

Dendrology led me to other courses taught by Larry – field botany, plant systematics – I loved them all. Larry fed my growing enthusiasm by introducing me to the Charlotte botanical community.

While returning from a field trip for one of the courses I was taking, I was complaining that there was no place for ordinary people not wanting college level courses, to learn about our native plants. Larry told me I should do something about that. So I did! It took a long time but I think I have done as he suggested, all because of Larry’s advice to connect the importance of native plants to our lives.

In fact, it was Larry who told me I should join the North Carolina Wildflower Preservation Society, which I had never heard of. He and his wife Audrey were life members and had been active in the past. Little did he know that he would soon become much more active with this organization.

After joining the NC Wildflower Preservation Society and becoming active, it was decided that I would form a chapter in Charlotte. Of course, I approached Larry and he generously let us meet in the classroom at the UNCC Botanical Garden. He helped us get the chapter off the ground and helped us grow our membership. This was the second chapter of what eventually was renamed the North Carolina Native Plant Society (NCNPS). The first chapter was in the Raleigh area.

Later, the Charlotte Chapter joined with HAWK (Habitat and Wildlife Keepers, founded in 2006 as the first chapter of the NC Wildlife Federation) to work with Larry to start the Native Plant Certificate Program at UNCC Botanical Garden. The program has now educated hundreds of people in the value and use of native plants and has had a great impact on the greater Charlotte area. Larry taught the introductory class, imparting his love and knowledge while being entertaining, witty, and thoroughly enjoyable. He also taught the tree identification and fern classes.

Larry was always there to help us tread through the sometimes minefields of the botany world. Our yearly native plant sale and auctions often included plants that were also on the state/federal endangered plant lists. We are very strict on the conservation and collection of plants. We made sure that the endangered plants we sold were nursery propagated by members from stock legally obtained. Larry helped us work out procedures with the government authorities to allow the availability of these plants to others and thus keep genotypes in cultivation.

Larry was auctioneer for many plant sales over the years. His accurate, witty, and helpful descriptions of each plant raised their desirability as well as the bids. We were at one such auction at Hagan-Stone Park when Larry picked up the next plant and said its name, which identified it as an invasive plant. There was stunned silence as Larry, carefully and deliberately, threw the plant out of the open-air pavilion where it rolled down the slope! Just as calmly, he picked up the next plant and proceeded with the auction as if nothing had happened. We sat in shocked silence.

Larry served as president of the NCNPS, guiding us to more involvement in native plant issues and a bigger impact across the state. He was on the NCNPS board of directors before becoming president and served in some capacity to the Society from 2008–2020. His last tour was as chairperson of the Native Plant Habitat Certification Program, where he helped people certify 42 more habitats. Larry fact-checked and edited the handouts found on the Society’s website, He freely shared his many pictures with us and the Recommended Native Plant section on our website was taken directly from his work.

It is impossible to estimate the profound effect Larry had on the world of native plants – especially in North Carolina – on people’s lives, and on me personally. He opened a world of beauty, intricacy, interrelatedness, and importance beyond my imagination. Thank you, Larry.

Jean Woods, Brevard. Past NCNPS president and former board member of the Catawba Land Conservancy. Currently serves as chair of the NCNPS Technology Committee.

Leadership, Humor, And Friendship – A Gift to Us All

By Dr. Ken Bridle

Larry was always the teacher, always sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm. Photo by Paula Gross

Members of the North Carolina Native Plant Society are enthusiastic about native plants. We are familiar with the plants that are part of the ecology of our area, supporting insects and wildlife as part of Mother Nature’s plan. We are enthusiastic about our gardens and the natural habitats that support the amazing diversity of native plants in our state. We seek out expert guides and teachers for our events. None was more accomplished or enthusiastic as Dr. Larry Mellichamp.

Many of us first met Larry and Audrey when they became life members of the Society in the 1980s and attended outings and meetings. We soon recognized that he was a wonderfully knowledgeable guide for field trips and a gifted teacher, giving various workshops and programs. His knowledge was especially appreciated because he knew not only the sometimes dry and tedious taxonomy, history, and distribution of plants, but he was also enthusiastic about growing, cultivating, and gardening with native plants.

We appreciated his ability to find teachable moments in informal situations, with a wide range of members of different backgrounds and interests. Everyone learned from Larry, and he connected with folks in ways that will be greatly missed.

Larry was not just one to teach but he also wanted to make things happen to benefit the Society and the native plants that are our mission. He joined the board and served as the chair of the Habitat Certification Committee, making that program more effective and scientifically sound. His leadership jump-started that program and increased the numbers of people who have applied and been approved to have a Certified Native Plant Habitat. It is now more than 150 and growing. He also served as a highly effective president, making many strategic and organizational improvements.

He also was very involved in improving our publications, newsletter articles, and web page content over the years, always making good suggestions. Most recently Larry, as a strong promoter of the use of native plants in the landscape, provided plant suggestions, photographs, and written content for the NC Piedmont Landscaping Guide. Larry started the organizational support for the Cullowee Native Plant Conference so that vendors would not have to pay fees to attend.

All the successful work he did for the organization will live on, but for many of us what we will miss most are his enthusiasm and humor. During walks in the woods, we learned about plants and remembered them because of his stories, jokes, puns, and the infectious fun he was obviously having. His programs pulled the listener in. With humor, he suggested how one might use native plants in our gardens and how to appreciate them in special places in the wild. Always willing to go and see natives in their habitat, anyone who went with him would never forget the experience.

A few months ago, Larry was once again auctioneer at the Native Plant Society picnic, a job he was supremely good at. People came to his auctions not only to buy plants but also for the entertaining show he put on. He provided interesting background on the plants, how to grow them, and garden requirements interspersed with spontaneous funny comments. While talking about a pot of carnivorous pitcher plants on stage, telling about what insects they eat and how to care for them in your garden, he noticed a house fly sitting on the lip of one pitcher. “There is a fly here contemplating suicide,” he said. “You can watch this kind of thing at home,” to ripples of laughter from the audience. All of which drove up the bidding and many people, like me, wound up buying plants we probably would not have otherwise.

Larry sharing enthusiasm, knowledge, leadership, humor, and friendship – a gift to all of us. We will miss him very much.

Dr. Ken Bridle, Walnut Cove (NCNPS Triad Chapter). Past and current North Carolina Native Plant Society president.

Larry T. Mellichamp, the Plantsman of his Time!

By Ken Moore

Larry Mellichamp was ever the teacher. “Go ask Larry!” was a familiar response to anyone’s question about plants. Photo by Beth Davis

I have been fortunate to share a botanical life with Larry for four decades-plus!

I came to cherish him as a world class botanist, a keen plantsman, passionate gardener, and a dedicated teacher sharing his knowledge, expertise, and his plants at hundreds of venues where eager people were gathered.

Though Larry specialized on regional native plants, he had a fine grasp of the world flora –  when anyone sought an identification of anything, the response was immediately: “Go ask Larry!!”

He was a propagator of all plants and premier hybridizer, particularly of Sarracenia species. Many he named are now in the trade. 

Larry was always a requested presenter at symposia, conferences, and other gatherings at home and abroad.

He was a popular leader of field trips throughout the eastern United States and he was a regular leader “of-the-pack” in support of the North Carolina Native Plant Society.

He shared his plant knowledge and skills in easy-to-read publications, too numerous to list.  They are still available to an eager gardening public.

Perhaps there is no one but Larry who has shared with such a wide audience a passion for observing plants, knowing plants, and becoming engaged with plants.

If such an encounter did not fall on an already acknowledged passionate plantsman, then that individual very definitely became one!

Here are three cheers for Larry T. Mellichamp, truly the Plantsman of his Time!

Ken Moore, Abingdon VA. Retired, North Carolina Botanical Garden; past director, Cullowhee Native Plant Conference, and past president, North Carolina Wildflower Preservation Society (1975–1976).

A Man Who Wore Many Hats

By Will Stuart

Larry examines Little-leaf Pixie-moss with Lyne Askins in the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Will Stuart

I recently visited the Croatan National Forest for the first time. As I explored a rutted sideroad I found a cluster of tall, yellow asters at peak bloom. They were Wetland Sunflowers (Helianthus heterophyllus), tall and handsome with a single large flower head on a slender, nearly leafless stalk. Wetland Sunflowers are not common outside of the Croatan.

In recent years I would joyfully share similar “discoveries” with Larry. Invariably Larry would know the species, ask pointed questions, often have a story to share. He would delight in knowing parts of the Croatan are now well managed for such coastal wet pine species. I will miss sharing my native plant adventures with Larry.

In 2009 I was fortunate to be one of the early enrollees in the Certificate in Native Plant Studies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte Botanical Gardens. Now in its second decade, this experiential program has educated, entertained, and inspired hundreds of adults in an ever-evolving curriculum of native plant topics.

Program graduates are part of Larry’s legacy. They view their home landscapes differently. They are Master Naturalists, Audubon Ambassadors, and native plant advocates. Larry taught many of the core classes for over a decade. His students enjoyed hours of time in the classroom, guided walks through the university gardens, even a “Fern Foray” to the Pisgah Forest ending with dinner at the Mount Pisgah Inn.

Successful teaching, like successful gardening, is part science and part art. Larry was a master teacher, uniquely able to frame and structure a lesson, always engaging his students while delivering sometimes complicated topics with enthusiasm and humor. Larry went far beyond identifying and describing native plants. His classes were filled with special moments when Larry, invariably with a sparkle in his eye, opened a door and invited students to enter the world of his plants. For a moment we were a fragrant blossom enticing a beetle, an aster offering a landing pad to a butterfly, a carnivorous plant luring a fly on its final, perilous journey.

For the first plant identification course Larry and Paula Gross constructed, from scratch, a scaled-down dichotomous key of local plants. They handed us freshly cut plants, one after another, each a lesson in the vocabulary of plant anatomy. From my class notes, I recall Larry drawing a stem and an attached leaf, then labeling the petiole, the node, and the axil. In my notes I have Larry’s admonition. “Always, always check the nodes!” he said. “Look for buds, glands, stipules.”

In 2011 Larry asked me to provide photographs for Native Plants of the Southeast. For the next two years I would be a witness as the book evolved. Larry nudged Timber Press to add chapters on aquatics and bog plants. His writing reflected decades of experience collecting, growing, and purchasing native plants for the UNCC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. Larry had long-standing relationships with all the southeast native plant nurserymen and decades of involvement with the native plant community through the North Carolina Native Plant Society and the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference. He was a meticulous scholar and a gifted writer. I cannot imagine another author for this seminal publication on southeast native plants. You will find Larry’s scholarship and passion for native plants lyrically distilled into the few descriptive words Timber Press editors allocated for each plant.

As Larry and I worked to get photographs for the book, Larry would walk with me through Van Landingham Glen, stopping at plants, describing traits that made each special. He described the “Curlyheads” of Clematis ochroleuca, the distinctive bark of Spruce Pine, the rippling leaves of Seersucker Sedge. Along a garden walkway we stopped at a small, seemingly nondescript shrub. It was Leatherwood (Dirca palustris). Larry grasped a long, slender stem and tied a perfect little knot in the stem. He described the tiny flowers, the rounded tips of the leaves. As with so many species, Larry had a special appreciation for Leatherwood and his affection for the plant was contagious. In early March, 2011 I would use a macro lens to photograph a tiny pair of yellow blossoms and the frilly backlit margins of young leaves. You will find Dirca palustris on page 232 of the book. In Larry’s notes you will read “Dirca palustris is my favorite shrub. It is not showy, ever, but its charm will captivate you in subtle ways.” I can hear his words! I will let you read the rest.

I shared a few days in the field with Larry, each a special memory. On a trip to Steven’s Creek in South Carolina with Larry and Audrey, we became separated as I photographed Shooting Star. From a distance I heard a very loud “Whoop.” Larry had ventured off trail to get closer to a plant. He reappeared, unscathed.

When rare plants were in the offing, terrain and poor footing would not constrain Larry. On an early summer trip to Butner I was sure we would fall into a ravine while scrambling to get close to Stewartia ovata. In March of 2014 Lyne Askins, manager of the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge offered to escort us to a known site for Little-leaf Pixie-moss (Pyxidanthera brevifolia). Lyne drove us to an otherwise nondescript longleaf tract where Larry and I followed as Lyne poked about in the pinestraw. Within a few minutes we had located a population of Pixie-moss in full bloom. Larry dropped to the ground, loupe in hand, and as he lay prone on the pinestraw, he examined the tiny blossoms, bubbled with enthusiasm, and gave us a lesson on the boxy anthers of this charming little shrub.

We would continue to an impenetrable streamhead where Larry would wade in and locate White Wicky (Kalmia cuneata), another rare sandhills endemic. It was a very good day of botanizing!

In 2016 Larry and I co-led an NCNPS fall field trip to the North Carolina Sandhills Game Lands. I had directed Larry to a special streamhead which is home to some of the best pocosin flora the sandhills has to offer. We had split into two groups, Larry and his group heading to the streamhead, my group hiking upslope to find Rhus michauxii. When our time to rendezvous had passed and Larry was still not in sight, I headed out to find Larry and his group. To no surprise, I found him still expounding on the roadside plants. The clock was never of prime importance to Larry when there were interesting plants to explore. Years later Larry would delight in the variety of woody shrubs we found in that sandhills streamhead.

If you were privileged to spend time with Larry you have seen him wear many hats, literally as well as figuratively. I was fortunate to know Larry as an exceptional teacher, a gifted author, a delightful public speaker, a uniquely skilled botanist, gardener, plantsman, and as my mentor.  To paraphrase Thornton Wilder, our highest tribute to Larry will not be in our grief. It will be found in our gratitude for the countless ways Larry enriched our lives.

Will Stuart, Matthews, NC (NCNPS Southern Piedmont Chapter). Photographer for Native Plants of the Southeast and The Southeast Native Plant Primer.

Articles by Jean Woods, Dr. Ken Bridle, Ken Moore & Will Stuart
Native Plant News – Commemorative Edition 2022