Collectors of the UNC Herbarium
Information compiled by Carol Ann McCormick.
Images and photograph generously provided by Evelyn Silver Hyams
Mordecai Elisha Hyams
(28 September 1819 -- 16 May 1891).
The NCU Herbarium has currently databased
about 60 specimens collected by Mordecai E. Hyams. As cataloging of the
collection continues, no doubt more will be found. Mordecai Hyams' life
offers a fascinating insight into the business of botany in the post-bellum
era of North Carolina, and into the vibrant Jewish community of
Statesville, North Carolina.
Most of Hyams' specimens are signed
"M.E. Hyams" and lack specific location data.
age 68 years
Mordecai Elisha Hyams was born in Charleston,
South Carolina on 28 September 1819. He became a voting member of a Jewish
congregation in Charleston in May 1843 at age 23. In 1849 he was living in
Magnolia, Florida and teaching school. On 16 August 1849 he married Caroline
Frederika Scheufler Smith in Duval County. (Evelyn Silver Hyams says the
family records reflect that Mordecai and Caroline married in 1848.) Their
marriage produced seven children: Washington, John, Jefferson, Catherine, George
McQueen, Charles Walter, and Fred. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he
informs the family, "I belonged to the 2nd Regiment of Florida
Volunteers -- commanded by Col. Ward -- Company E. Davis Guards -- Capt.
Call. I enlisted at Middleburg, E. Fla. Keep this, as it may be of use in the
future." The National Park Service's Civil War Soldiers and Sailors
System lists Hyams as a member of Company K, enlisting as a Private, and
leaving as a Private.
Because of his botanical knowledge Mordecai
Hyams was sent to North Carolina, where the Confederates stockpiled roots,
herbs, and barks to be processed into drugs. “These articles were
concentrated at the Charlotte Military Institute, and were there put up in
packages, and many manufactured into solid and fluid extracts, tinctures,
pills, powders, ointments, etc., for the use of the army which as deemed an
essential substitute for foreign drugs which were difficult to obtain, only
through blockade runners.”(1) Hyams was discharged from the Confederate Army
on 20 April 1862 in Yorktown, Virginia. Hyams not only never returned to
Florida, but also changed careers to botany.
“After the war and its afflictions had
subsided,”(1) Hyams went into the crude drug business. At that time, all
drugs were derived from plants: tinctures from barks, ointments from roots,
teas from berries. By 1871 Hyams was the botanist and manager of Wallace
Brothers’ “botanic depot,” a three story 44,000 square foot warehouse on South
Meeting Street in Statesville. Hyams established a vast network of mountain
people who collected in the forests, then bartered the herbs to local
shopkeepers, who in turn, shipped the plants to Statesville in return for
wholesale goods such as salt and kerosene from the Wallace Brothers’ other
business ventures. Hyams was crucial in this operation: he went on extensive
expeditions to identify plants and then to instruct gatherers and shopkeepers
on how to preserve, prepare and ship them to Statesville.(2,3) In time, the
Wallace Brothers’ catalog listed 300 plants for sale, including Adam and Eve
orchid root (Aplectrum hyemale), haircap moss (Polytrichum
sp.), wild ginger root (Hexastylis sp.), Solomon’s seal root (Polygonum
biflorum), and of course, ginseng (Panax quinquefolius).(4)
Mordecai Hyams was not interested in just the business
of plants. He belonged to the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society,
corresponded with learned botanists of the day, and sent specimens to
herbaria at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
While most collectors are careful to note the location where a plant was
collected, most of Hyams’ specimens read simply “Statesville,” and NCU
Herbarium staff annotate these specimens with the caveat: “Mordecai
E. Hyams was based in Statesville, NC, and collected widely in North
Carolina. The ‘Statesville’ on the label should not be taken as a collecting
locality. Plants so labeled are probably from North Carolina, but no more
definite locality can be determined.”
Hyams retired from Wallace Brothers in the late
1880’s. The Panic of 1893, a serious economic decline precipitated by a run
on the gold supply, hit North Carolina hard, and Wallace Brothers went
bankrupt in 1895.(3) With the advent of chemical synthesis of drugs (such as
Aspirin, patented by Bayer in 1899) the demand for many botanicals lessened,
with the notable exception of Panax.
Mordecai Hyams and his son, George Hyams
(1861-1932), are most famous for discovering Shortia galacifolia
along the Catawba River (McDowell County, NC) in 1877. Shortia was
originally found in the mountains of the Carolinas in 1788 by French botanist
Andre Michaux. Many botanists searched in vain for the plant for ninety
years. “We were passing along the road and my attention was called to an
elevated hillside that I could not ascend as being at the time rather
exhausted, being [almost] sixty years old” said Modecai Hyams, “so I
requested [George] to ascend and bring whatever was in flower.” He did not
recognize the plant, so sent it to Joseph Congden in Rhode Island, who in turn
sent it to Asa Gray at Harvard, who recognized it as the long-sought Shortia.
Gray visited Statesville in 1879, toured the Wallace Brothers herb depot, and
accompanied the Hyams to George’s Shortia patch.(2) The UNC
Herbarium has several specimens of Shortia collected by Mordecai
Hyams in April, 1879 from this location. George Hyams didn’t pursue botany
after his spectacular find as a teenager, and chose instead to run the
general store and be postmaster in Old Fort until his death in 1932.
Mordecai Hyams died on 16 May 1891 in Statesville, North Carolina. Although
Hyams was born to a Jewish family and was member of a Jewish congregation
early in life, he ended life as a member of the Presbyterian Church in
Statesville (see obituary from Statesville Landmark newspaper,
below). Exactly when he became a Presbyterian is unclear. It is interesting
Charles E. Raynor, Pastor of First Presbyterian in Statesville from 1909
- 1944, was himself a dedicated botanist and personal friend of the Hyams'
family, particulary of Mordecai's son, Charles Walter Hyams (1864 - 1941).
The membership rolls, baptism records, etc. of First Presbyterian
Church of Statesville for the 1800's were archived at Montreat College, but
have been transferred elsewhere when that facility closed in 2006.
For a fascinating discussion of the botanic
business in post-bellum North Carolina and a description of the vibrant Jewish
community of Statesville of that era, see Freeze, Gary R. (1995)
Roots, barks, berries, and Jews: the herb trade in Gilded-Age North Carolina.
Essays in Economics & Business History 13: 107-127. The Wallace
family with whom Hyams worked was instrumental in founding Congregation Emanuel, one of the
oldest Jewish congregations in the state of North Carolina.
For a more complete description of Mordecai
Hyams' life, see Troyer, James R. (2001) The Hyams family, father and
sons, contributors to North Carolina botany. The Journal of the Elisha
Mitchell Scientific Society 117(4): 240-248.
1. Hyams, M.E. (1877) The botanic business of
western North Carolina, read before the N.C. State Agricultural Society. The
Charlotte Democrat, Friday November 23, 1877. 26(1306): .
2. Troyer, James R. (2001) The Hyams family,
father and sons, contributors to North Carolina botany. Journ. Elisha
Mitchell Sci. Soc. 117(4): 240-248.
3. Freeze, Gary R. (1995) Roots, barks, berries,
and Jews: the herb trade in Gilded-Age North Carolina. Essays in Econ.&
Bus. Hist. 13: 107-127.
4. Anderson, T. E. (1934) When Statesville was
nation’s “yarb” center. Southern Med. & Surg. 96: 594.
accessed on 29 March 2007.
Selected Publications Authored by M.E.
Hyams, M.E. (1885) A preliminary list of
additions to Curtis' catalogue of indigenous and naturalized palnts of North
Carolina. Flowering plants. J. Elisha Mitchell Sci. Soc. 2: 72-76.
Hyams, M.E. (1885) A sport in the leaf of Blephilia ciliata Raf. J. Elisha
Mitchell Sci. Soc. 2: 94.
Hyams, M.E. (1877) The botanic business of western North Carolina, read
before the N.C. State Agricultural Society. The Charlotte Democrat, Friday
November 23, 1877. 26(1306): .
The following obituary of Mordecai Hyams contains some historical and
botanical inaccuracies, but is interesting nonetheless.
The Landmark, Statesville, North Carolina, 21 May 1891:
THE LATE PROF. M. E. HYAMS
This gentleman died at his home on Front street
last Saturday afternoon after a long sickness. He was the botanist of the
herbarium of Messrs. Wallace Bros. for many years and was latterly the
botanist of Mr. L. Pinkus, dealer in medicinal roots and herbs. He was quite
a remarkable man – a man of greater gifts than many of his acquaintances were
aware. He was born at Charleston, S.C., September 28, 1819, and graduated at
the University at Columbia. He enlisted in the Confederate army and was
assigned, in 1863, to the charge of the medical supply department at
Charlotte. In the latter part of that year he moved to Statesville and this
remained his home until his death.
He was the only botanist who ever found the renowned plant Darbya Umbellata [Nestronia
umbellula Raf.] in flower [see Sargent (1894), transcribed below]
and was the first botanist to find Florentine Orris [the rhizome of Iris
germanica, Linné; Iris florentina, Linné, and Iris pallida,
Lamarck] growing in the United States. He was also the first botanist to see
the plant Shortia Galacifolia in flower and it was named Hyams’ Sparkling
Shortia, for him, by Miss Emily Lawton of Dubuque, Iowa. He added the names
of 166 new varieties of plants to the flora of North Carolina. He was the
author of The Crude Drug Industry of the South, which was published in four
different languages and wrote a list of the forest trees of the State for the
Census Bureau. He collected and arranged the exhibits of Messrs. Wallace
Bros. at Paris in 1878 and at Philadelphia in 1876. He was an Honorary member
of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society of the University of North
Carolina, and was elected a delegate to the National Forestry Congress and to
the American Forestry Association which met at Cincinnati in April, 1882. At
the request of the State Department of Agriculture he undertook the task of revising,
correcting and enlarging Rev. Dr. Curtis’s book on the Woody Plants of North
Carolina, but owing to failure of health that task was never completed though
his first addition to this work was printed in the Journal of the Elisha
Mitchell Scientific Society in 1885.
A scientist of fine ability and a lover of Nature, he never lost sight of the
truth that there is a God higher and mightier than Nature. He was a member of
the Presbyterian church and his funeral took place from that church Sunday
afternoon. The exercises were conducted by the pastor, in the presence of a
great congregation, and a large concourse of people followed the remains to
The Charlotte Democrat, Friday November 23,
1877. 26(1306): .
The Botanic Business of Western North Carolina.
By M.E. Hyams, Statesville, N.C., read before the N.C. State Agricultural
Prior to the Confederate war, a very small
business was carried on in the way of disposing of the roots, herbs, barks,
seeds and flowers, which are indigenous to the State. It had merely engaged
the attention of one or two individuals in the county of Wilkes. The
exceeding limited variety and diminutive sales could not be called, under the
circumstances, a prosperous business, and thus far was not successful; and
the results, consequent upon secession, exhausted the hopes of the trades,
and no sales or collections were made through them after the above period.
About eighteen months after the struggle commenced, the Confederate
Government entered into the business, and purchased some few articles through
the people in general and the surgeons of the army. The collections became
rather larger than anticipated, and it was abandoned, not, however, until the
supplies of each was sufficient for the demand of the army. These articles
were concentrated at the Charlotte Military Institute, and were there put up
in packages, and many manufactured into solid and fluid extracts, tinctures,
pills, powders, ointments, etc. for the use of the army, which was deemed an
essential substitute for foreign drugs which were difficult to obtain, only
through blockade runners. The stock on hand at the time of surrender was sold
at a low figure, and shipped by the purchasers north, who made handsomely by
After the war and its afflictions had subsided,
a few merchants endeavored to collect some of these crude drugs through their
customers, but the effort proved abortive, and being unsuccessful was
discontinued. The writer, who was engaged in the year 1873, proposed to open
the trade at Statesville, N.C., and the proposition was accepted by the
generous and enterprising firm of Wallace Bros., who, in the most liberal
manner, spared neither the pains nor means to make it available and place
everything at my disposal necessary for its successful completion, and the
result will show for itself. At the opening of the business many supposed it
was intended to be a quackery – looked upon it as disgraceful. Some supposed
it was intended to dispense herb teas for the use of those who were ignorant
and superstitious. Others, as they passed by the house, would turn up their
noses and vent their spleen, and many others openly denounced it, while some
proclaimed it a humbug and imposition. Many were the sneering remarks of
those who would be called fastidious and prophecied its failure and sudden
downfall, but of such is mankind, and now they find themselves mistaken.
By perseverance and industry, accompanied by the
botanic researches through the forests, fields, mountains, meadows,
roadsides, etc., aided by the means at hand, so bountifully bestowed by our
Creator, with a determination to succeed, it has resulted with astonishing
strides and been more successful than our most sanguine anticipations could
imagine. It has reached a climax beyond the limit of the United States,
penetrating nearly all the foreign countries. We have direct trade with
England, Germany, Austria, Prussia, and other principalities.
Since the Exhibition at Philadelphia the
business has doubled itself. The judges of award report in glowing terms the
beautiful display made by this firm, and embodies in their report the
following language: “As unexcelled in extent, variety, completeness and
general perfection of the exhibit.” A diploma of honor and a bronze medal was
duly awarded. The result of such distinguished honor upon the house, reflects
credit, and at the same time gives it tone and confidence, making it the only
reliable house to the chemist, pharmacist and manufacturer, that can be found
in the Southern States, an for whom they depend upon obtaining the proper and
correct officinal indigenous drugs. No imposition or substitutes are used,
and during these many years, it is with grateful pride that it is said, that
not a single error has occurred in defining the proper article wanted. The
goods are gotten up in fancy style and have become the admiration of the
general botanic trade of the country.
In the year 1873, the variety purchased was a
little over 200 different kinds, since which it as increased to the most
incredible figures of 1,400, all of which are found sufficiently abundant to
supply the demand. Many of these medicinal plants were unknown, as being
indigenous, and discovered by perseverance and industry, not enumerated in
any of the botanic books of the present day. In the year 1873 the amount sold
exceeded 160.000 pounds. It now reaches 1,500,000 pounds. Nearly all our
interior western merchants drive quite a respectable trade during the Spring,
Summer and Fall months, and their entire purchases of medicinal products
concentrate at this point. Some reach here in wagons, but the larger portion
by the W. N.C. Railroad. A large supply reaches us from our immediate neighborhood;
and the collection of herbs and roots furnish a livelihood to many persons
unable to do more laborious duties. The number of persons annually engaged
would embrace many thousands. Of course it could not be definitely estimated,
when it takes in so many counties. The number of packages of burlaps consumed
the last twelve months averages twelve. Each package contains twelve bales of
200 yards each, making a total of one hundred and forty-four bales – making a
grand total of twenty-eight thousand eight hundred yards. Some varieties of
medical plants abound in quantities in the eastern part of the State from
which we draw our supplies. The demand for these crude drugs is in many
instances unlimited, and the prospects are favorable for a continuance.
The botanic resources of N. Carolina are more
than all the other States combined in extent and variety, and the medical
virtues of these crude drugs are extolled over the world, fast superceding
the old theory that mercurial agents are essential for all the diseases that
the human family is the heir to. In making this report to your Society, or
for publication, we deem it proper to say we have used no language of figure
for the purpose of exaggeration. A visit to this establishment will suffice
for its truth. The building we occupy is 40 X 100 feet, 2 ½ stories, with
porches full length; and this large space at times is crowded, so much as to
necessitate the building of an addition next Spring. The business is so
extensively known that it needs no comment from the pen of the writer. The
firm is getting up a collection for the Paris Exhibition. – Copied from the
Sargent, C. S. (1894) New or Little-known
Plants: Darbya umbellata. Garden and Forest 7 (313): 74-75. [Darby
umbellata Gray is now known as Nestronia umbellulata Raf.]
The Sandal-wood family, which is chiefly tropical, appears in the eastern
United States with half a dozen species of plants, in four genera. Of these, Comandra,
small parasitic herbs, is common at the north -- with three species, and Pyrularia,
thle Oil Nut, which is also represented in the Himalaya forest, is a common
shrub in the southern Alleghany Mountain region. Buckleya, the third
genus, has one representative in North America, one of the rarest of all
American plants (see GARDEN AND FOREST,
vol. iii., p. 237), and another in the mountain forests of central Hondo, in
Japan. The fourth genus, Darbya, is monotypic, and, although it was
discovered more than fifty years ago, it is only recently that the discovery
of the pistillate plant and of ripe fruit has made it possible to complete
the description of its characters.
Darbya is a glabrous shrub, with slender, terete or quadrangular
dark-brown branchlets, often roughened
with dark lenticels, long, thick stoloniferous roots, and deciduous leaves
without stipules. The leaves are ovate, narrowed at both ends,
reticulate-venulose, entire, with slightly revolute margins, thin and
membranous, darkgreen on the upper surface, pale on the lower surface, an
inch and a half to two inches long, and three-quarters of an inch to an inch
wide on the fertile plant, or not more than half as large on the sterile
plant, with slender, pale midribs, remote oblique veins forked near the
margins, and short stout petioles. The staminate and pistillate flowers are
greenish-white,' apetalous, and produced on separate
individuals from the axils of leaves of the year, the former on slender
pedicels in five or six-flowered pedunculate umbels, the peduncles nearly as
long as the leaves, the latter, solitary and articulate on short stout
peduncles. The calyx is usually four, sometimes three or five, lobed, and
slightly puberulous on the outer surface of the short, thick acute lobes
which are valvate in the bud, and after anthesis are spreading and reflexed;
it is turbinate in the staminate flower, and nearly twice as long and
in the pistillate flower, and is lined with a thick, cupshaped, slightly
lobed disk, on the margin of which and
on the lobes are inserted, opposite the divisions of the calyx, the four, or
sometimes three or five, introrse, slightly exserted stamens, with short,
stout, flattened filaments furnished at the base, on the outer side, with
small tufts of pale hairs, and oblong anthers attached on the back below the
middle, and two-celled, the cells opening by longitudinal slits. In the
pistillate flower the stamens are rather smaller, included, and apparently
fertile. The ovary is inferior and abruptly narrowed into a short, exserted, thick,
conical style, tipped with a four-lobed spreading stigma; before
fertilization, the cell and its ovaries are not distinguishable, the whole of
the flower below the disk consisting of a homogeneous pulpy mass; in the
sterile flower there is no trace of an ovary, the cavity of the disk
extending to the bottom of the calyx. The fruit is a nearly globose drupe,
crowned with the remnants of the calyxlimb, with thin, dry, mealy flesh, a
thin-shelled light brown nutlet, and a globose seed, covered with a thin
membranous scurfy testa closely investing the large mass of fleshy albumen.
The embryo is axile and erect, with linear cotyledons much longer than the
short erect radicle turned toward the hilum.
Darbya, of which only one species is known, Darbya umbellata,
was established by Dr. Asa Gray, who characterized the staminate plant only
in the American journal of Science in 1846 (ser. 2, i., 388). It had been
found a few years earlier by Dr. Boykin near Milledgeville, Georgia and near
Macon by Professor Darby, and in the neighborhood of Lincolnton, in North
Carolina, by Mr. M. A. Curtis. Nothing more was seen or heard of Darbya
until the spring of 1882, when Dr. Charles Mohr found the staminate plant on
Sand Mountain, in Cullman County, Alabama, south of the Tennessee River. In
the spring of 1886 Miss
K. A. Taylor, of Baltimore, found staminate plants near Columbia, South
Carolina, and two years later the pistillate plant in the same locality; and
the following notes from her pen give the best account of the habit
and mode of growth of this extremely rare and interesting plant, which has
not yet been brought into cultivation:
Oak, Hickory and other deciduous-leaved trees and shrubs. The soil is
light, loose white sand, without stones, and is overlaid with a thick-covering
The Darbya flourishes alike in sunny and shady situations. The roots are
several yards long, an eighth to half an inch in diameter, dark red on the
outside, white within, with rootlets at intervals of an inch or more; they
branch every foot or so, and run in straight lines through the leaf-mold
about two to six inches below the surface, crossing each other frequently and
sending up shoots sometimes an inch and sometimes several feet apart. The
leaves are always much larger on the pistillate than on the staminate plants.
The two grow thickly.
A few years ago (1886) I collected some specimens of the staminate plant, not
then knowing its name or rarity. This year, in the middle of April, I made a
thorough search in the same woods, about two miles south of Columbia, and
found both staminate and pistillate plants growing in the greatest abundance
and covering acres. The ground is high, and covered with woods composed of a
few Pines, but principally ofand cover much ground, although the plants of
the two sexes are never mingled, the groups being in no case, I think, nearer
to one another than one hundred and fifty to two hundred yards. The plants
grow from twelve to thirty-three inches high, and both kinds of flowers have
a sweet musk-like odor. I noticed many small black ants visiting the flowers,
and finding, apparently, something attractive at the base of the
In 1888 Dr. Hyams also found fruiting plants of Darbya near
Charlotte, North Carolina.
Fig. i6.-Darbya umbellata.
i. A flowering branch of the staminate plant, natural size. 2. A flowering
branch of the pistillate plant, natural size. 3. A firuiting branch, natural
size. 4. A staminate
flower, enlarged. 5. Vertical section of a staminate flower, enlarged. 6. A
pistillate flower, enlarged. 7. Vertical section of a pistillate flower,
8. Vertical section of a fruit, enlarged. 9. An embryo, much magnified.
C. S. S. [Charles S. Sargent]
thanks to Evelyn Silver Hyams of Charlotte, North Carolina for providing a
wealth of information about the Hyams family and the Wallace Brothers'
Evelyn's husband, Robert Penland Hyams, is Mordecai Hyams'
and Jefferson Henry Hyams grandson.
Curriculum North Carolina UNC
In Ecology Botanical Garden Biology Department
University of North Carolina Herbarium
CB# 3280, Coker Hall
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3280
phone: (919) 962-6931
fax: (919) 962-6930
Updated: 29 March 2007