Larry Mellichamp—Advocator and Educator

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He understood the importance of our state’s natural heritage. He was always engaging his students while delivering sometimes complicated topics with enthusiasm and humor.

A Botanist and Teacher, He Never Outgrew His Sense of Wonder, by Margot Ringenburg
Larry, An Insightful, Enthusiastic Advocate, by Pat Holder
Our Teacher, Our Leader, Our Friend: In Memory of Larry Mellichamp, by Beth Davis
We have a task. . ., by Laura Domingo

A Botanist and Teacher, He Never Outgrew His Sense of Wonder

by Margot Ringenburg

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides). Photo by Margot Ringenburg

I first met Larry in 2010 at an NC Native Plant Society Spring Outing in the Brevard area soon after moving to North Carolina. Two veteran members offered some wise and valuable advice: “When we break into groups, go with Larry.” And, I soon learned why.

Larry not only knew his plants, he was an exemplary teacher. This was due in no small part to his understanding of human nature, his inimitable sense of humor, as well as his innate appreciation of language and the power of words. He chose his words with care and used them to keep his audience – be it students, native plant enthusiasts, or the general public – interested, entertained, and aware of the importance and unique features of our state’s native plants and their distinct natural habitats. He may have made use of an identical phrase countless times over when addressing various audiences, but on each occasion it was delivered in a fresh and authentic manner. 

Larry never outgrew his sense of wonder with the natural world. This comes across clearly in his  descriptions of native plants in what has become my favorite garden guide, Native Plants of the Southeast. He said this of Orange Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis): “What kid (in all of us) has not freaked out at pinching the ripe, turgid seedpods and having them suddenly split like a hand buzzer to our delight?”

Atamasco Lily (Zephyranthes atamasco). Photo by Carol Fox

Of Atamasco Lily (Zephyranthes atamasco), he wrote, “The large white flowers are hauntingly beautiful when you see them blooming en masse in a shady seep or wet  woods . . . . It is magical to see them come up so suddenly in early spring.” His words were used  to educate, but also to humor and reassure both veteran gardeners and those just putting their first native plant into the ground: “I have never killed a trillium (well, hardly ever).”

Larry painted pictures with his words, leaving those who accompanied him on walks with  indelible images that remained clear and helpful months and years later when encountering a  particular native wildflower for the first time – whether in the wild or a cultivated garden.

Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora). Photo by Margot Ringenburg

Despite my sometimes faulty memory, his description of Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) has never left me: “The stems and leaves appear to have just come out of the washing machine and are twisted and wrinkled, but that is part of the charm.”

Eastern Shooting Star (Primula meadia). Photo by Margot Ringenburg

He also taught me never to underestimate the beauty of what might be discovered right outside the car window, in the ditches that lined the roads of the coast or around the next bend on a curvy road in the  mountains, be it diminutive and delicate Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) or that equally spectacular show-stopper, Eastern Shooting Star (Primula meadia).

One of the clearest and strongest memories I have of Larry dates back to the 2011 NCNPS Fall  Outing at Shaken Creek Savanna Preserve in Pender County. He was out in front, leading a long and sinuous line of us, wading up to his elbows through a sea of Curly-headed Toothache Grass (Ctenium aromaticum).

Periodically, Larry would pause and part the grasses, peering down and then pointing out to us the hidden wonderland of carnivorous plants that lay at our feet. I hope and trust that if there is such a thing as an afterlife, it is home to such a species-rich savanna for endless days of wandering and discovery.

Margot Ringenburg, Chapel Hill (NCNPS Triangle Chapter). Vice-president of the North Carolina Native Plant Society.

Larry, An Insightful, Enthusiastic Advocate

by Pat Holder

Larry was a captivating teacher, full of charming descriptions, interesting insights, and heartfelt enthusiasm. Photo by Lisa Tompkins

My first field trip as a new member of the North Carolina Native Plant Society was held on a  very rainy Saturday in October 2015. About 35 native plant enthusiasts gathered in the McDonald’s parking lot in Richfield, NC. Like many of the others, I was intrigued by the chance to see some special native plants that grow in this area along nearby Riles Creek.

Because of the large number of participants, we were divided into two groups. Larry  Mellichamp led the group that I had joined into the nearby woods, while Paula Gross led the others on a roadside viewing nearby. As Larry described the beautiful trees, shrubs, mosses and other plants we encountered, I realized that I was clearly in the presence of a very knowledgeable, passionate native plant advocate. Under a blanket of unrelenting rain, I was captivated by Larry’s charming descriptions, interesting insights, and heartfelt enthusiasm for the plants we observed.

As the rain continued to pour down, we stopped for lunch and a seed exchange. After lunch, Larry offered us the option of ending our plant walk or continuing on to a roadside forest area at Reed Gold Mine. Fueled by the exciting discoveries of the morning, I wanted to keep on  exploring plants in this beautiful, diverse area. Without hesitating, I zipped my raincoat up a little higher and slogged along with Larry’s group.

We examined quite a number of different plants during the afternoon walk. As a new native  plant gardener, I was unfamiliar with many of these plants. Luckily, Larry later emailed participants a list of what we had seen, which was very helpful to me since I could look up descriptions.

What an incredible first native plant field trip! A major part of my joy on that rainy day was  spending it with the author of my favorite native plant resource book, Native Plants of the  Southeast.

Pat Holder, Asheboro (NCNPS Triad Chapter). Coordinator, NCNPS Native Plant Habitat Certification Program.

Our Teacher, Our Leader, Our Friend: In Memory of Dr. Larry Mellichamp

by Beth Davis

Larry was always eagerly willing to guide walks to interesting places. Photo by Beth Davis

It’s hard to measure the impact that Dr. Larry Mellichamp had on the NC Native Plant Society in general and the Southern Piedmont Chapter more specifically. His enthusiasm for botany and native plants had no bounds, and he was always eagerly willing to guide walks to interesting places we wouldn’t normally be able to visit, make presentations to our chapter meetings at Reedy Creek Nature Center on a wide variety of topics, and donate oh so many plants from his backyard nursery to our chapter raffles. Larry was more than generous with his time, gladly answering questions on all matter of home garden challenges or plant ID.

He recruited me as co-chair to the chapter several years ago, and who could say no to Larry? In my mind his legacy is like ripples in a pond. Each person he touched, spreading the message of how supporting native plants in both our home gardens, and more broadly in our public lands can somehow be a small step in healing the world. It’s a tall order, but as I’ve seen in the many tributes to Dr. M, Larry was a giant of a man. We were blessed to have his guidance.

Beth Davis, Charlotte (NCNPS Southern Piedmont Chapter). Past co-chair, NCNPS Southern Piedmont Chapter. This article was reprinted from the chapter’s fall 2022 newsletter.

We have a task. . .

by Laura Domingo

Charlie Williams (right), a long- time volunteer at the herbarium and author of André Michaux in North America with Larry Mellichamp (center) and Jim Matthews at the Reedy Creek Nature Center. Photo by Laura Domingo

I cannot recall how it came to fruition but sometime after meeting Larry (Dr. M) we decided that it would be a great partnership to have the Southern Piedmont Chapter of the Native Plant Society meet at Reedy Creek Nature Center. We had recently built the James M. Matthews Center for Biodiversity Studies as an addition to the Nature Center. It included an herbarium where we added a desk for Larry as he retired from the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC).

I remember those first meetings in the classroom where we would average 15 participants. I think as folks started to learn that Larry was there, and as he began to give more and more walks and talks, we grew and grew and grew. We got to the point of needing a larger space and our one-hour meetings always stretched into two+ hour meetings as folks would line up to be able to ask Larry a question.

We could always count on him bringing an incredible number of plants from his gardens for our raffle, and what a delight to think of all the “Larry plants” out there in Charlotte and beyond! His expertise, character, and overall zeal for native plants was and always will be such a blessing for those of us who got to sit in on the meetings or be present at a walk.

Although we are feeling the sadness and void of his loss at this time, it is hard not to be grateful for the gift we were all blessed with in having him in our chapter.

The two “Dr. Ms,” Larry Mellichamp (left) and Jim Matthews at the herbarium of the James M. Matthews Center for Biodiversity Studies at Reedy Creek Nature Center. Photo by Laura Domingo

We had two occasions this past year to have the “Dr. Ms” come together, once for an NCNPS Southern Piedmont chapter meeting and once for an occasion to honor the pressing of our 50,000th herbarium sheet. Dr. Matthews was Larry’s first teacher and vice versa, Dr. Mellichamp was Dr. Jim Matthews’s first student. It was a joy to watch these two reminisce about their lives’ work and true to this work, to share it with others.

These meetings were a testament to their characters, as always, bringing folks together in the name of native plants, sharing their immense knowledge so freely, and encouraging others to join in the work.

I had the blessed opportunity to share some alone time with Larry after one of the last chapter meetings he was at. We did not tiptoe around the elephant in the room but instead embraced the moment to say goodbye. On a personal note, the experience is impossible to translate into words. I am so glad that I got the chance to look him in the eyes, embrace him and say thank you. One of the things we talked about that day was the chapter meeting during which he said, “You all are doing such great work.” He talked of our growth and of passing the torch. He understood that it was his time and he expressed feeling good about all we are doing. “Keep it up,” he said.

And so our task now is to continue this great work, to pass on the wisdom of this great man and to carry his torch and his love of native plants.

Laura Domingo, Concord (NCNPS Southern Piedmont Chapter). NCNPS Southern Piedmont Chapter co-chair.

Articles by Margot Ringenburg, Pat Holder, Beth Davis & Laura Domingo
Native Plant News – Commemorative Edition 2022