Story by George Ellison with image by Elizabeth Ellison
This is the story of Rugel's ragwort (Rugelia nudicaulis)—one of the most rare and interesting plants in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—and its eccentric namesake, the German-born plant collector Ferdinand Ignatius Xavier Rugel.
In 1840, Rugel (1806-1879) came to the United States to collect biological specimens in the Southern Appalachians. Supporting himself as a pharmacist, he settled in Dandridge, Tennessee, in 1842. After 1849 he moved to Knoxville, where he worked for a wholesale drug firm.
His botanical companion, the geologist-botanist Samuel Botsford Buckley—for whom Mt. Buckley situated on the flank of Clingmans Dome is named— described the super-eccentric Rugel as “the best prepared and equipped for collecting and preserving specimens of any person” he had ever met.
According to Buckley, Rugel rode his horse, Fox, with “a large, square tin strapped to his shoulder and a straw hat tied beneath his chin.” One of their journeys into the Smokies region was uneventful until there was “a clattering of hoofs, and Fox dashed by, with Rugel crying ‘Whoa, Fox! Whoa, Fox!’ his hair streaming in the wind, with tin box and hat dashing up and down at every jump the horse made.” Buckley re-located Rugel a mile or so down the road at a steep hill where Fox had finally come to a stop. Undaunted, Rugel remounted and the two companions continued with their plant collecting.
On one of his outings in 1842 into the high-elevation spruce-fir forest—probably in the vicinity of Clingman's Dome but possibly on Balsam Mountain—Rugel happened upon a low-growing rather extensive colony of an unpretentious looking plant that taxonomists remain uncertain as to how it should be classified.
In her Clingmans Dome: Highest Mountain in the Great Smokies (2013) Marci Spencer defends Rugel's by noting, “The beauty that nature denied in bud is compensated in leaf. A cluster of 4-inch-long, toothed leaves encircle each stem as if embroidered by a seamstress.”
I find the colonies as a whole to be quite attractive, when the flowers are in bloom from June into August and in winter, when the evergreen leaves are clearly etched against the forest floor.
In his Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States (UNC Herbarium, 2010) Alan S. Weakley expresses his opinion that Rugel's belongs in the aster family as a member of a monotypic genus; that is, it's so unlike any other plant in the family, it warrants standing alone. Of the six or so colonies reputed to be in GSMNP, one that Marci Spencer describes the location for is situated “midway along the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail.”
Should you go there walk carefully, pick nothing and be aware that you're in the presence of a plant found at above 4,000 feet elevation in GSMNP and no place else in the universe. And while you're at it, you might give a passing thought to Ferdinand Ignatius Xavier Rugel, too.