Mordecai Elisha Hyams

(28 September 1819 — 16 May 1891)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) curates 118 vascular plant specimens collected by the Hyams family.  As we continue to catalog our collections it is likely we will find more.  Thus far we have cataloged 81 vascular plant specimens collected by Mordecai E. Hyams, 30 collected by his son, Charles Walter Hyams, and an additional 6 which just have “Hyams” as the collector.

Mordecai E. Hyams and his son, George Hyams, are best known for re-discovering Shortia galacifolia in 1877 along the Catawba River in McDowell County, North Carolina.  Shortia galacifolia had been found in the mountains of the Carolinas in 1788 by French botanist Andre Michaux, but not documented after that.

Most of Mordecai E. Hyams’ specimens at NCU are signed “M.E. Hyams”, lack specific location data, and are undated.  Of those few specimens with dates, the range is from 1878 to 1891, with the years 1878 and 1880 being most common.  Most specimens at NCU also lack detailed location information — in fact, Hyams typically put “Statesville” on a label even when a plant was clearly from elsewhere.  NCU has opted to annotate Mordecai E. Hyams 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.”

Many of the specimens collected by Mordecai E. Hyams have labels bearing “Herbarium, Eli Lily & Co.” at the top.  Some were part of the William Willard Ashe Herbarium before being incorporated into NCU.  A significant number of the specimens were in the herbarium of Dr. Ferdinand Blanchard, then transferred to Dartmouth College Herbarium (HNH), then sent to NCU as a gift in 2002.

Other herbaria curating specimens collected by Mordecai E. Hyams include  Academy of Natural Sciences (PH: vascular plants & bryophytes), California Botanic Garden (CalBG; vascular plants), Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CM: vascular plants), Field Museum (F: vascular plants), Harvard Herbaria (GH, A, FH: vascular plants & fungi), Indiana University (IND: vascular plants; bryophytes, fungi, lichens), Marshall University (MUHW: vascular plants), (Miami University (MU: vascular plants), Missouri Botanical Garden (MO: vascular plants), New Mexico State University (NMC: vascular plants), New York Botanical Garden (NY: vascular plants), Ohio State University (OS: vascular plants & bryophytes), University of Cincinnati (CINC: vascular plants), Florida Museum of Natural History (FLAS: vascular plants), University of Kansas (KANU: vascular plants), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MICH: vascular plants), University of Minnesota (MIN: vascular plants), University of Vermont (VT: vascular plants) and University of Wisconsin, Madison (WIS: vascular plants).6,7,8,9

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 Henry, Catherine, George McQueen, Charles Walter, and Fred. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he informed 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. [East Florida].  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.10

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.

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.11

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 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 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 that Rev. Charles E. Raynor, Pastor of First Presbyterian in Statesville from 1909 – 1944, was himself a dedicated botanist and personal friend of the Hyams’ family, particularly 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.



Selected Publications Authored by Mordecai Elisha Hyams

Hyams, M.E. (1885) A preliminary list of additions to Curtis’ catalogue of indigenous and naturalized plants 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): [1].


The following obituary of Mordecai Hyams contains some historical and botanical inaccuracies, but is interesting nonetheless.

The Landmark, Statesville, North Carolina, 21 May 1891:


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 Oakwood cemetery.


The Charlotte Democrat, Friday November 23, 1877. 26(1306): [1].

The Botanic Business of Western North Carolina.
By M.E. Hyams, Statesville, N.C., read before the N.C. State Agricultural Society.

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 the enterprise.

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 Statesville Landmark.


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 cylindrical
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 of leaf-mold.

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 of and 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.

C. S. S. [Charles S. Sargent]


Special thanks to Evelyn Silver Hyams of Charlotte, North Carolina for providing a wealth of information about the Hyams family and the Wallace Brothers’ businesses.
Evelyn’s husband, Robert Penland Hyams, is Mordecai Hyams’ great-grandson
and Jefferson Henry Hyams grandson.




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): [1].

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.

5. accessed on 29 March 2007.

6.  Consortium of Lichen Herbaria (2023) http// Accessed on October 14.

7. MyCoPortal . 2023. Accessed on October 14.

8.  SERNEC Data Portal. 2023. http// Accessed on October 14.

9.  Consortium of Bryophyte Herbaria. 2023. http// Accessed on October 14.

10.  National Park Service.  The Civil War.  Soldier Details:  Hyams, M. E.  accessed on 14 October 2023.

11.  History of Aspirin.  Wikipedia.  accessed on 14 October 2023