William Willard Ashe


The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) curates at least 4,000 specimens collected by William Willard Ashe.  As we continue to catalog our holdings more will be found.

William Willard Ashe was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on June 4, 1872. His family inhabited a rambling antebellum estate named Elmwood * which provided Ashe, described by one biographer as a “congenital naturalist,” with abundant woods and fields to explore for curiosities.

It is reported that Willard and his brother Samuel together published a small tract called “The West End Sun” with woodcuts carved by Willard. A copy of this work was placed in the cornerstone of the State Agricultural College Building in Raleigh.  Samuel died on 28 July, 1932, a mere four months after his elder brother. (1)

Much of the young Willard Ashe’s spare time was spent collecting specimens and his collections required a two-story building by the time he entered college. Ashe clearly had the eye of a scientist and was known for being able to readily discern differences between very similar plants.

At the age of fifteen, Ashe entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, matriculating in 1891. The following year he received his M.S. from Cornell, where he specialized in botany and geology.

Flower of Magnolia asheiFrom 1892 to 1905, he was employed as a forester by the North Carolina Geological Survey, but also worked on special projects with the recently-formed United States Forest Service. Ashe remained a professional forester all of his life, conducting his work on floristics and systematic botany in his spare time or as a minor sideline to his forestry labors. Realizing this makes a look at a list of Ashe’s publications that much more amazing.  One of the many plants named in his honor is Magnolia ashei Weatherby (photo at right by Dr. Kenneth Wurdack).

In 1905 Ashe joined the U.S. Forest Service full time and was employed there until his death in 1932. During this time he served as Secretary of the National Forest Reservation Commission (1918-1924), vice-president of the Society of American Foresters (1919), and chairman of the Forest Service Tree Name Committee (1930-1932).

In 1906 he married his cousin Margaret Haywood Henry Wilcox (1856-1939), for whom he named at total of seven taxa.  “Ashe used variable construction, capitalization, and orthography in these epithets presumed to honor Margaret,” according to Alan Weakley.  “Under these provisions of [Article 60.8. of the Shenzhen] Code, these… epithets and later combinations based on them should be corrected and standardized to ‘margaretiae’. The epithets that have the most important current consequence are Quercus margaretiae (W.W. Ashe) Small, Crataegus margaretiae W.W. Ashe, and Robinia ×margaretiae W.W. Ashe (pro sp.), which are all in current usage for plants of eastern North America — though others of the names could come back into use in the future.”(1)

His keen eye for detail led him to create many new taxa, publishing 510 plant names during his career. Many of these have gone into synonomy.

To date, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium has cataloged over 3,620 specimens collected by W.W. Ashe; many more remain to be found.

Ashe was an amazingly prolific writer on a wide variety of subjects. Topics of his publications include the terracing of farm lands, forest management, light requirements of trees, optimizing profit through selective harvesting of timber, land acquisition policy for the federal government, and systematic papers on a number of woody genera, including QuercusRhusRobiniaPinusCrataegus, and Carya, although he also published on such herbaceous genera as Asarum and Panicum.  Dayton, W.A. 1936?. William Willard Ashe (1872-1932). [No publication information given.] includes a complete bibliography of Ashe’s works organized by subject and may be found at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library’s North Carolina Collection.

“By 1932,” writes Laurie Stewart Radford in her History of the Herbarium of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,”our country was in the middle of “The Great Depression”, the worst in its history… Institutions as well as people were hard hit, and there was no money to be found for extras.  It was during this dark time that news came of the sudden death of William Willard Ashe [on 18 March 1932], following an operation on March 7th.  This unexpected event was to change the nature and the direction of the Herbarium… A few days after the death of Ashe, [Thomas Grant] Harbison received from Ashe’s secretary an undated letter of instructions from Ashe to be delivered in the event of his death, to his good friend Harbison… In the letter, Ashe stated that his botanical work was largely incomplete and he hoped Harbison would be able to look over his collection, and carry out some of his wishes.  One of these was that his herbarium might be placed in some North Carolina institution… [Harbison said] “Now my personal wish and preference would be for the University of North Carolina [at Chapel Hill] to be the custodian of this fine collection representing the life work of one of her most brilliant sons.  I feel this would meet his wish.”… on December 22nd [1932], Dr. Coker [chair of the Biology Department at UNC-CH] wrote to Dr. Harbison that “President Graham and I succeeded yesterday in getting a gift from Mr. Watts Hill of Durham… to secure the Ashe Herbarium from Mrs. Ashe.”(3)  The Ashe Herbarium formed the nucleus of what would come to be the Herbarium of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (NCU).

William Willard Ashe was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, Wake County, North Carolina. (4)


*excerpts from:  Flowers, John Baxton III.  1975.  National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form:  Elmwood.   Photo of house, below, by D. Ciccone, Capital City Camera Club

For a number of years [after the death of Romulus Mitchell Saunders in 1867] the Elmwood house was rented to a series of people, among them Dr. T. D. Martin, a Perquimans County native and Confederate surgeon, who moved to Elmwood from his Hillsborough, North Carolina, home with his wife, Henrietta Perkins Martin, and their ward, Hannah Emerson Willard, daughter of William H. Willard, a Massachusetts manufacturer who had settled in North Carolina before the Civil War.  The widowed Willard had placed his daughter in the Martin household.

On a visit to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1871, Hannah Willard met Samuel A. Ashe, and they were married at Elmwood that same year.  The Ashes’ first child [William Willard Ashe] was born at Elmwood in 1872, and the house was being remodeled that year, so the Martins and Ashes moved out while repairs were made.  The Martins never returned to the house.  Instead, William Willard purchased the property on November 8, 1873, from Bradley Johnson, a trustee for the Saunders heirs.  It included almost five acres of land “Situate in the Western Part of said City (Raleigh) fronting on Hillsborough Street known as ‘Elmwood,’ late the residence of R.M. Saunders.”  The price was $12,000.

Samuel A’Court Ashe [William Willard Ashe’s father] was born at Wrightsville Sound in New Hanover County, North Carolina on September 13, 1840.  His parents were William Shepperd Ashe and Sarah Ann Green.  He received his early education in old field schools, Abbott’s and Rugby academies in the District of Columbia, and Oxford Academy in Maryland.  In 1855 he entered the United States Naval Academy, but resigned in 1858 to return to his home and study law under William Kirkland Ruffin.  In 1861 he entered Confederate service, and was paroled in 1865 with the rank of captain.  He was for a time a railroad conductor, but in January, 1867, he was admitted to the bar in Wilmington.  In 1870 he was a successful candidate for the North Carolina House, and after his marriage in 1871 was a permanent resident of Raleigh, where he practiced law.  In 1874 he began to edit a daily newspaper, the Evening Crescent.  In 1879 he purchased the Raleigh Observer, and in 1881 the Daily News, joining both papers as the News and Observer – which is still a leading newspaper in the state… Always a prolific writer, he is best known for his principal editorship of the voluminous Biographical History of North Carolina, which first appeared in 1905 and is still a valuable resource.  Ashe died in 1938 and was buried in Raleigh.

… [Two of William Willard Ashe’s sisters], Hannah (Mrs. William H. Bason), and Josephine (Mrs. Joseph Graef)…live at Elmwood today [1975].


PUBLICATIONS:  incomplete list

Forest fires: Their destructive work, causes and prevention. North Carolina Geological Survey Bulletin no. 7. Raleigh, North Carolina: J. Daniels, 1895.

Timber trees and forests of North Carolina. (With Gifford Pinchot.) North Carolina Geological Survey Bulletin no. 6. Raleigh: Winston & Stewart, 1897.

Loblolly, or North Carolina pine. Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1915.

Shade trees for North Carolina. North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey Bulletin no. 16. Raleigh: E.M. Uzell, 1908.

1.  Coker, W.C., J.S. Holmes, and C.F. Korstian. 1932. William Willard Ashe. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 48(1): 40-47.
2. Weakley, A.S., D.B. Poindexter, H.C. Medford, B.A. Sorrie, C.A. McCormick, E.L. Bridges, S.L. Orzell, K.A. Bradley, H.E. Ballard, Jr., R.N. Burwell, S.L. Lockhart, and A.R. Franck. [in press, Dec. 2020]. Studies in the vascular flora of the southeastern United States. VI. J. Bot. Res. Inst. Texas 14(2):  pp-pp.
3.  Stewart Radford, Laurie.  1998.  The History of the Herbarium of the Universtiy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  http://www.herbarium.unc.edu/HerbariumHistory.pdf
4.  Find A Grave 93337063


This page was largely authored by Ron Gilmour, William Burk, Mary Felton and Jimmy R. Massey in the 1990’s.  It was edited and updated by Carol Ann McCormick 29 August 2020.