In The Natural Gardens of North Carolina, B. W. Wells describes eleven major natural communities in North Carolina, each with discrete ecological habitats. Dr. Wells also states in the introduction to the book, “Close observation within these various communities discloses the possibility of a further classification into subcommunities. And these, in turn, may be correlated with slight changes in the habitat factor complex.” One such subcommunity lies only 20 miles to the east of Rockcliff Farm. It is the Granitic Flatrocks of the Mitchell Mill State Natural Area.
Mitchell Mill has a fascinating mix of unusual and in some cases rare plants that are adapted to life on and around the flatrocks. In the early fall, the Pulleytown Road access to the flatrocks is dominated by the massed flora displays of Helianthus porteri – Porter’s Sunflower. This plant thrives on granite flatrocks in a number of counties in northern Georgia, but is not native to North Carolina. Many years ago it was introduced to the Mitchell Mill flatrocks as part of an ecological experiment, and has flourished there ever since. Unusual for sunflowers, Helianthus porteri is an annual, not a perrenial, so the populations vary from year to year in coverage and distribution. This year they have spread out of the flatrocks and into the ditches along the east side of Pulleytown Road.
Did Dr. Wells know about the Mitchell Mill flatrocks so near his home, and did he visit there? The answer is most probably yes. In North Carolina State University’s D. H. Hill Library Digital Collections is a lantern slide from the B. W. Wells collection that depicts a large granite flatrock thought to be of Mitchell Mill. Here is a link to this lantern slide: http://images.lib.ncsu.edu:8180/luna/servlet/detail/NCSULIB~101~2~100013283~213009:Granite-flat-rock-community
This lantern slide is from a period that predates the transplantation of Helianthus porteri, so if Dr. Wells ever saw the huge blooms of this sunflower, it was probably much later in his retired years – he retired in 1954 at the age of 70.