Major Award for Larry Mellichamp Honors a Rich Legacy

At an awards ceremony for Charlotte native Dr. Larry Mellichamp were (from left) Dr. Alan Weakley, director of UNC herbarium at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill) and adjunct associate professor at UNC Chapel Hill; Dr. Mellichamp, director emeritus of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, and Dr. Johnny Randall, director of conservation programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Photo by Lynn Roberson
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By Johnny Randall

Presenting Larry Mellichamp the Flora Caroliniana Award “for his continuing enthusiasm and service to the preservation, restoration, and appreciation of the natural world around us” from the North Carolina Botanical Garden was an honor. It also symbolized his botanical achievements in teaching, scholarship, conservation, appreciation, and love of plants. Larry joined the ranks of only six people to have received the award over 34 years, including Lady Bird Johnson, John K. Terres, William Lanier Hunt, C. Ritchie Bell, Tom Earnhardt, and Charlotte Jones-Roe. But it was Ritchie Bell, the NC Botanical Garden’s first director (1961-1986) and mentor to Larry, who was, I think, particularly significant for Larry.

It was singularly meaningful for me to present the award (and I hope also for Larry!), in my role as director of conservation at the NC Botanical Garden, but also as Larry’s first advisee at UNCC, colleague, and friend. And his infectious passion for plants nurtured and launched my own budding interests and professional career in botany. The award cannot capture, of course, the many dimensions of Larry’s accomplishments or particularly his keen sense of humor and endless wit.

The Highest of Award for a Charlotte Native Planter

By Paula Gross

Many of you know me, but for those who do not, I had the honor and adventure of working with Larry for 18 years here at the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, and co-authoring two books together. I’m so pleased to be standing here in a garden co-created with Larry, Ed Davis, Johnny Massengale, and the entire staff, donors, and volunteer community of the Botanical Gardens. A place nourishing to body, mind, and spirit, bearing a very special name–Mellichamp.

I know Larry well and yet in preparing to say a few words I did go back and read his CV (curriculum vitae). If you’re interested in reading it yourself, I suggest packing a lunch. The word prolific comes to mind, not invasive, but prolific! He has written about–whether in books, scientific papers, treatises, or newsletters–nearly 1000 different species. Seriously–it took hours to count them all!

This award, this honor, is well placed on his mantle. And yet, doubt may still surface–even in someone as accomplished as Larry Mellichamp. When you think about it, perhaps he’s done too much! I mean, what might he have accomplished as a taxonomist had he not consulted on art projects, created garden brochures, gotten the giant image of a Venus Fly-trap plastered on U-haul trucks, and transformed historic home landscapes with his bare hands! Think of all he could have done had he not traveled to Sydney, Wuhan, Cape Town, and even Belmont to present at botanical conferences? Writing seven books, directing a botanical garden, and teaching thousands of students. Yeah, that can get in the way of field work! What if he hadn’t shared so much knowledge and passion with fern, orchid, and rock garden societies. Homeowners, nurserymen, and beekeepers? Perennial plant, rhododendron, and carnivorous plant societies? County and state parks, foresters, arborists, botanical gardens (of course!), horticultural symposia, and let’s not forget native plant and wildflower societies!

Well, I (for one) am grateful that he followed his passions wherever they led. Because wherever they led, you can be sure that a depth of knowledge was mined, ored, and polished. And then–and this is the important part–it was shared, widely and generously. You can’t spend an hour with Larry without learning something! And it’s not just that he holds a wealth of knowledge.

A Green Tribe of Sharing

It’s a spirit of learning and of creating that is in the air around him. And those of us who breathe it in are eager to keep up and to create exciting new things. Whether crouching down together to see the first sprouts of an “ungrowable” plant, or standing tall to shake the hands of native plant studies graduates, hearing Larry exclaim that something you have done is “Fabulous! Just Fabulous!” has boosted the minds and hearts of so many of us in this green tribe. And the world needs this. It needs us, with our green hearts open, strong, growing, and more than ever–sharing.

For each and every one of us are deeply interconnected. And sharing is the very fiber of Dr. Mellichamp.

Larry, without a doubt, as a botanist you’ve been graced with a deeper knowing, endless curiosity, and an inner mandate to share. You were born an acorn, even if at times you may have longed to be an orchid seed. And the web of your life–the community within and without you–helped to disperse, water, and only very occasionally prune you.

“Pick a flower from my garden, Larry, just for you.”

“Go outside and don’t come back until dinner–hmmm, think I’ll go see what’s in that pond across the street.” “I’ve got a board here in the garage, I’ll paint you a sign, and you may sell your plants to the neighbors.”

“Come along with me to the mountains, to the coast–you can carry the plant press.” “I’ve got a few plants I’d like you to help me put in the ground, down here by the creek–I’d like to see if this rhododendron will grow.”

“Let’s hunt morels and pick the sweetest wild berries,” she said with a smile. And the acorn sprouted. And grew. And never stopped growing.

And now we’re all gathered here for the mighty oak. As I look upon my friend the oak, I wonder, “Does it know its stature?”

Does it feel the tingle of thousands of fungal life-threads radiating from its roots? Does it hear the rustle of its own leaves as they fall and slowly, but surely feed the forest? Does it laugh as squirrels run rough-shod up its trunk? And does it blush when hawks create new life among its branches?

Today, we are tapping on your trunk Larry, and draping the highest of awards across your branches. It is a beautiful and well-deserved honor. May you bask in it! Your community is vast and varied, diverse and evolving. I am proud to stand with all these others and celebrate you.

And my wish for you, in the afterglow of this morning, is to find time to close your eyes and feel the tingle and exchange of life through the threads of your being – to hear the rustle of so many falling leaves in the forest around you. To feel the gentle weight of birds on your branches and the reflexive spring as they open their wings and fly off, acorns in beaks.

Articles by Johnny Randall and Paula Gross
Native Plant News – Summer 2022

Johnny Randall, PhD, is the director of conservation at the North Carolina Botanical Garden of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and adjunct faculty in the UNC Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program. At NCBG, Johnny oversees the conservation and management of over 1,200 acres of natural areas, and administers conservation seed programs and rare plant reintroductions.

Paula Gross has spent her career connecting plants and people through education. As the former associate director of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte Botanical Gardens, she taught university courses on botany and plant identification and led the creation of children’s and adult public education programs, where she is currently at Davidson Green School. She holds a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of Georgia, co-authored several books with Larry Mellichamp and wrote for Fine Gardening magazine. Her deep belief in the power of plants is what inspires her to write and teach.