A family tradition in botany

Story by PJ Gartin  Photos by Richard Porcher

Dr. Richard Porcher comes from a long line of gentlemen planters who embrace scientific knowledge. His family has been part of the agrarian fabric of Berkeley County, South Carolina, for centuries.

Catesby’s lily (Lilium catesbaei) was first recorded in Thomas Walter’s Flora Caroliniana in 1788.

However, he doesn’t view his zest for botanical adventure as simply a familial obligation. When asked why he became a field botanist, he had a look of exasperation, as if it was the silliest question in the world. “It’s a part of me. It’s who I am. It’s in my family,” said the retired college professor.

Porcher’s descendants explored South Carolina’s eddies, streams, hammocks, forests, mountains, savannas, and tidal basins long before the rest of the world cared about ecosystems and plant diversity. Some of them published their botanical discoveries in 18th and 19th century scientific catalogs and books. One distant relative, the noted English botanist Thomas Walter wrote the first printed catalog of South Carolina’s indigenous flowering plants. Those familiar with Walter’s pine (Pinus glabra) might find it interesting that it is named for Walter because he was the first to describe it. 

This century’s peripatetic Porcher enthusiastically carries on his family’s botanical traditions. He’s written or co-authored seven books and, when he’s not in the field or on his tractor, he’s teaching others about native flora and plant communities. He thinks nothing about loading his pickup truck with tripods and cameras to drive several hours from his Mount Pleasant home to photograph a single flower.

The carnivorous purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is native to the Carolinas.

Porcher’s botanizing gene didn’t immediately kick in. Porcher attended the College of Charleston to study zoology, mainly because he wasn’t interested in plants and botany courses were nonexistent. But while attending graduate school at the University of South Carolina, he enrolled in a field botany course taught by Wade Batson, author of Landscape Plants for the Southeast. And that was it. He was hooked on plants. (In honor of his mentor, Porcher has established a field botany scholarship at Clemson University in Dr. Batson’s name.)

After graduating with a PhD from USC, Porcher taught for three years at Voorhees College, a historically black college in Denmark, South Carolina, and then spent the next 33 years at The Citadel. One of the first things he did after retiring from the world of academia was to enroll in the College of Charleston and The Citadel’s joint graduate history program. He wanted to learn how to think and write like an historian in order to better tell the story of man’s relationship to plants.

Now he has three books in the works, including Our Lost Heritage: A Cultural History of the People and Plantations of Middle St. John’s Parish in Berkeley County. It is the story about the land before Lake Moultrie, South Carolina’s third largest lake, was created in the early 1940s.

Gardeners and native plant enthusiasts are looking forward to the re-issue of Wildflowers of the Carolina Lowcountry and Lower Pee Dee. Currently out of print, Porcher has teamed up with his former student, Dr. Joel Gramling, who is now associate professor of plant ecology at The Citadel and curator of their herbarium. They are expanding the book’s contents. Gramling is writing most of the text and Porcher is taking all of the photos. After this book is published, Porcher will expand his digital collection beyond the Lowcountry and intends to set up a digital wildflower network at Clemson University. This system will be free and accessible to anyone. His database currently contains photos of more than 1,000 plant species and he is continually adding more.

Stewartia (S. malacodendron) is native to the Carolina coastal plains. Described in Landscape Plants for the Southeast as an interesting shrub, it lends “a flash of color” to understory plantings.

Porcher and Gambling are also collaborating on another book: Rediscovering the Lowcountry Landscape in the Footsteps of Our Forbearers. It is a narrative on how man has reshaped the landscape. For an example, Porcher mentions how loblolly pine (P. taeda) established itself after longleaf pine (P. palustris) was aggressively harvested.

Of course, one doesn’t have to traipse around fields and forests to appreciate our botanical heritage – although such opportunities exist if one joins the South Carolina Native Plant Society (scnps.org) or North Carolina Native Plant Society (ncwildflower.org). Even if you aren’t adventurous, Porcher recommends using indigenous plants as the backbone of a home landscape. Once one understands how and why a particular species lives in its natural setting, it becomes easier to determine where it will thrive in a manmade environment.

Does he have a favorite plant? “No,” says Porcher. “I love them all.”

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