It appears spring has sprung ... finally. One way to celebrate this weekend is a new event in the South Carolina mountains – BellFest at Devils Fork State Park.
The event is a benefit for Friends of Jocassee, a new nonprofit formed to protect and promote the Lake Jocassee area. From 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, there will be guided wildflower walks, boat tours and songbird tours as well as live bluegrass music and book signings.
The name BellFest is a tribute to the rare Oconee Bell, white wildflowers with conical blossoms found only in the mountain regions of the Carolinas. The legend of the Oconee Bell began when botanist Andre Michaux gathered samples in 1787. The samples were displayed in Michaux’s herbarium in Paris, with only vague reference to the plant’s being found in the high mountains of the Carolinas.
In the mid-1800s, Harvard botanist Asa Gray searched in vain for years for the plant. Gray had interpreted Michaux’s reference to the “high mountains of Carolina” as pointing to the tallest North Carolina mountains. Actually, Oconee Bells grow at lower elevations.
Finally, in 1877, a trout fisherman named G.M. Hyams found a population of the plants near Marion, N.C. The only other large populations grow along the creeks that drain into lakes Jocasee and Keowee along the S.C.-N.C. line. They pop out of the wet soil near creeks from the middle of March through April, but you have to know where to look to find them.
The best place to look is along the 11/2-mile Oconee Bell Trail at Devils Fork. The slope is gentle enough for youngsters and older folks in decent shape. You’ll need shoes with good grips, especially if rain has fallen recently.
The Oconee Bell is among the earliest-blooming wildflowers, so it might be blooming despite the extension of cold temperatures into March. In the next few weeks, it will be joined by bloodroot, pink wood sorrel and dozens of species of trillium. If you can’t make it up for BellFest, the forest around Lake Jocassee will be filled with wildflowers for weeks.
Admission to BellFest is free after paying the admission fee at Devils Fork State Park ($2 adults; $1.25 SC seniors; age 15 and younger free). The park is north of S.C. 11 in the upper reaches of Oconee County. It’s a long drive from Columbia, but the park offers cabins and camping for overnight visitors.