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TNC's UNC-Charlotte Connection

Biology students have helped with many Conservancy projects

Black Ankle Bog was discovered by UNC-Charlotte undergraduate students.

Story Highlights
  • UNC-Charlotte’s biology program has ties to the Green Swamp in the Southeast Coastal Plain, Hickory Nut Gorge in the Southern Blue Ridge and Black Ankle Bog.
  • Longtime Conservancy supporter Jim Matthews was a part of that program for many years.
  • UNC-Charlotte's herbarium, an impressive collection assembled by biology students, contains plants from 15 different counties, over 42,000 species.

The Green Swamp was another place where biology work was done by UNC-Charlotte students.

Although The Nature Conservancy doesn’t have any projects in Mecklenburg County, there are strong ties between the organization and the Charlotte area. Much of that connection comes from UNC-Charlotte’s biology program, work that was important to several key Conservancy projects:  the Green Swamp in the Southeast Coastal Plain, Hickory Nut Gorge in the Southern Blue Ridge and Black Ankle Bog in the Piedmont. Longtime Conservancy supporter Jim Matthews was a part of that program for many years. He began teaching there in 1964, creating its herbarium and eventually heading the department.

Today, Matthews continues his work on the herbarium, which is now part of the Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation Department. His work has been recognized in a number of ways – one of them is where the herbarium now makes its home, the James F. Matthews Center for Biodiversity Studies at Reedy Creek Nature Center.

Matthews’ students collected many of the herbarium specimens, which cover Mecklenburg and 14 nearby counties. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, those students started branching out with their collection work. “We were traveling across the state during breaks,” he explains. “Anyone who had an aunt or an uncle or other relatives that would let us stay with them, we made reservations.”

Word soon got out that UNC-Charlotte had a talented staff and a cadre of students who were ready to visit North Carolina’s special places and do field work. When Lu Morse, owner of Chimney Rock Park, wanted to get an inventory of plants on his property he came to Matthews. Matthews and his students’ work provided the basis for the Conservancy’s conservation in Hickory Nut Gorge. “We found things at low levels, 900 to 1,000 feet that normally grow at 2,500 feet,” he explains.

Larry Mellichamp, Director of UNC-Charlotte’s Botanical Gardens, was one of those students. “Undergrads at UNC-Charlotte were doing what graduate students did at bigger schools,” Mellichamp says.

Mellichamp says the program was effective at creating botanists. “When I heard the term plant systematics (the biological classification of plants), I thought it was about plumbing,” he says, with a laugh. “But, I remember the day I realized that I was going to be a botanist; It was when I looked at a dandelion and thought of it as its Latin name – taraxacum officinale.”

Mellichamp remembers those road field trips fondly.  Discovering Black Ankle Bog in Montgomery County was the result of one of those visits. “Within a few seconds, we knew that it was a significant find – a piece of the coastal plain in the Piedmont,” he says. The 282-acre tract is home to longleaf pine and pitcher plants. The Conservancy has owned the preserve since 1991 and has intensified management efforts, particularly through the use of controlled burning.  Mellichamp recently visited the bog and was pleased to see that it looks better today than it did when he first visited.

Matthews, Mellichamp and UNC-Charlotte’s reach in botanical circles is deep. Johnny Randall, Assistant Director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, was a student of both Matthews and Mellichamp. Randall grew up in Charlotte and always wanted to do something environmental. “Jim Matthews’ class really turned me on to botany. I took introductory to botany with him and then I took every course offered in plant biology,” Randall says. “It was really a hot bed of undergraduate enthusiasm. The undergrads would hang out in the herbarium. You never find undergrads hanging out in the herbarium; that’s where grad students normally hang out.  It was because of this inspiring group of professors.”

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