The University of North Carolina Herbarium has,
to date, catalogued about 50 specimens collected by Mr. Rankin. He typically signed his herbarium labels
“H.A. Rankin.” Most specimens at NCU
were collected in Cumberland County, North Carolina. Since he corresponded with John K. Small,
it is possible that NY also holds specimens collected by Rankin. In a letter
to his son, Henry Jr., dated 6 December 1927, Rankin writes, “[I received a
letter] from Dr. Plitt of Maryland University naming about twenty lichens for
me. I am sending them at his request
and keeping duplicates.” NCU has no
lichens collected by Rankin.
Though Rankin was a frequent correspondent with
Dr. William Chambers Coker of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
and many other notable botanists including John K. Small (New York Botanical Garden), Stephen Hamblin (Harvard
University Botanic Garden), C.D. Beadle (Biltmore Herbarium), and Charles C.
Deam (Indiana State Forester) , Rankin never attended any university, and it
is not known how he came by his love and knowledge of botany.
H.A. Rankin married Douglass Evans in 1896. He passed his love of science on to his
children. Henry, Jr.
(b. 30 May 1901 – d. 20 November 1999), writing while he is earning his
Masters degree in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, thanks his father for a recent
letter that included nature notes. “You caught my eye first on the bird note,
the pine or blue-winged warbler. I
surely would have liked a look at him; the pine warbler I know well enough, and
have always longed to see the other. I
wish I could see all the birds you come across on the railroad in the spring…
It’s [bird watching] a great sport for me, a combination of a number of
natural tendencies: love of nature,
hunting instinct, beauty and the game of getting up long lists. I can never stop thanking you for starting
me off right.” Another son, Samuel
Carson, joined his father in running the lumber business. Daughter Douglass “Peggy” Evans Rankin
earned a B.A. in biology from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA in 1927, did
research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, and earned a
Ph.D. in Botany at Johns Hopkins University in 1933. The title of her thesis was “A study of the
life history of Polypodium
polypodioides with especial reference to spermatogenesis.”
Henry Ashby Rankin is most notable in
Southeastern botany for his contributions to the knowledge of two plants, Parnassia caroliniana and Gelsemium
rankinii. In 1928, Dr. John K.
Small of the New York Botanical Garden named Swamp Jessamine in honor of
Henry Rankin, who had discovered the plant.
Small’s description was published in Addisonia 13: 37-38.
In 2006 Rankin’s granddaughters, Dorothy and Douglass
Rankin, gave his papers to the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. According to the catalogers of this
Ashby Rankin was born in Fayetteville, N.C., and spent most of his life as
the owner of a sawmill and plywood business in Cumberland County, N.C. After
retirement, he ran a nursery that specialized in native plants of North
Carolina. He was an avid amateur botanist and corresponded regularly with
members of the botanical community, with whom he exchanged specimens. Two of
his botanical achievements were the discovery of a new species of Gelsemium [Gelsemium rankinii Small] and the re-discovery of a plant [Parnassia caroliniana Michaux] first collected and described by the
French botanist Andre Michaux and then lost for 125 years. He was a long-time
member of the Gray Memorial Botanical Association. He died in 1947. The
collection contains correspondence, Rankin's writings and notes on plants,
papers pertaining to Rankin's plant nursery, printed materials pertaining to
flora, clippings of garden columns and other articles, and copies of the Gray Memorial Botanical Association Bulletin, 1933-1944.
Gelsemium rankinii Small, photograph courtesy of Duke
Henry A. Rankin was born on 15 June 1872, the
youngest of three children born to Capt. Samuel Carson Rankin (1831-1899) and
Martha Elizabeth Thom (1837-1872), both of Guilford County, North
Carolina. Henry Ashby’s siblings were
Walter Lacy Rankin (1868-1904) and Charles Alexander Rankin (1870-1934).
The 1880 census lists 7 year old Henry A. Rankin
living on Cool Spring Street in Fayetteville in the household of E.T. &
Janie W. McKethan. His relationship to
the McKethans is not elucidated. It is
interesting that young Henry is not living a few houses away, with A.E.
Rankin (28, head of household, merchant), Zula (27, wife), S.C. (48, brother,
widower – presumably Henry’s father), Lacy (11, nephew), Charles A. (9,
nephew), Nancy A. (32, sister).
The 1910 census shows Henry, 37, living in
Fayetteville, Cross Creek Township in Cumberland County, NC. His profession is listed as “lumber
manufacturer.” Also in the household
are wife Douglas E. [sic] (37), Samuel
C. (son, 12), Henry A., Jr. (son, 8), and Douglas E. [sic] (daughter, 7). By the
1930 census, Henry is listed as the Assistant Manager of a veneer plant, son
Samuel is a Manager of the veneer plant, Henry, Jr. is teaching English at a
college, and both mother and daughter are not employed.
Henry A. Rankin died of arteriosclerosis at 228
Hillside Avenue, in the city of Fayetteville on 21 June 1947. He is buried in Cross Creek Cemetery in
Alan (2006) Carolina Eyebright and Mr.
H.A. Rankin. North Carolina Botanical
Garden Newsletter May-June 2006: 11.
Parnassia caroliniana, photographed in 2009 in the
Nature Conservancy’s Green
Swamp Preserve by Jim Fowler
– its white petals filigreed with a delicate tracery of green venation – is
one of the most beautiful of North American and Eurasian wildflower
genera. Yet one of the North American
species of Parnassia remained a
mystery for over 120 years, finally being solved through the efforts of a
Fayetteville, NC, timberman named Hanry A. Rankin.
Rankin described himself in a
letter to William Chambers Coker, founder of the UNC Herbarium: “I am not a botanist, but am much
interested in the flora of the section.”
This interest, as well as abundant opportunity to explore southeastern
North Carolina while seeking stands of timber, made Rankin a distinguished
figure in North Carolina botany. Two
notable achievements were his discovery of a new species of Jessamine, named Gelsemium rankinii in his honor by John K. Small, and his rediscovery of Parnassia caroliniana.
Andre Michaux, French botanist
(1746-1802), discovered and named Parnassia
caroliniana from a vague locality
in the Coastal Plain of “Carolina.”
Through much of the 19th and early 20th
centuries, taxonomists assumed that the locality was erroneous, because Parnassia was known as a circumboreal
genus of cool habitats and its occurrence in the hot southern Coastal Plain
seemed implausible. In 1928, though,
Henry A. Rankin sent specimens collected near Hallsboro (Columbus County, NC)
to Small at the New York Botanical Garden.
Rankin was apparently not completely confident in the answer he
received, as he wrote Coker on October 8, 1929:
I sent Dr. Small of the N.Y. Botanical Garden, specimens of Parnassia about
which he became rather excited – said it was the original P. caroliniana
found by Michaux on the Carolina coast and that the Northern plant going
under that name was [a] different species – that it would now have to be
called P. americana, Muhl. I have
never seen the Northern species, and am sending you specimens from Hallsboro
and would like to know – well I’m just wondering if perhaps he is a little
too enthusiastic about multiplying species.
Yours very sincerely, H.A. Rankin.
days later, Coker replied, assuring Rankin that his material represented the
“real” P. caroliniana, expressing confidence in Small’s judgment and
stating, “I am much pleased to get your specimen of the plant; it will prove
a valuable addition to our herbarium.”
He added, “I would like to get acquainted with you, and suggest that
you take some opportunity to run up to Chapel Hill and see our herbarium and
Arboretum. I would be much pleased to
entertain you while in town” (a courtesy which we happily extend to our
correspondents in 2006 as well). Thus
began a fruitful correspondence and acquaintance that lasted at least into the
In 1934, Small’s colleague E.J.
Alexander published a paper in the journal Addisonia in which he extensively quoted Rankin as follows:
That the Grass-of-Parnassus [which I sent]
should turn out to be the true Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus is indeed good
news and is received almost as a personal vindication, for I have always
thought of it as that. Some years ago
I found in Blanchan’s Wildflowers under Carolina
Grass-of-Parnassus, the following – “What’s in a name, certainly our common
Grass-of-Parnassus, which is no grass at all, never starred the meadows
around about the home of the Muses, nor sought the steaming savannas of the
I have always resented that
passage as an almost personal affront.
Owen Wister said in “The Virginian,” “When you call me that always
smile,” and in this passage no smile is indicated.
What if our savannas are sometimes
steaming, it is the condition necessary for the development for many
wonderful plants which find here their most congenial surroundings.
But Grass-of-Parnassus does not
star the meadows during the steaming season, instead, the “Eyebright,” its
local name, times its first flowers to come just two weeks before frost… Its
chosen habitat is the wet savannas and hundreds of acres may be seen
liberally dotted with its white stars, but it finds its best development in
the lower places, and here it almost covers the ground. Today, November 1st, it is in its
prime and is the most conspicuous flower on many acres and in one little
depression less than two feet in diameter I counted seventy-two flowers and
with fire suppression, drainage, and development of outer Coastal Plain
pinelands, few places bearing a resemblance to Rankin’s description
remain. Parnassia caroliniana is an imperiled species, locally uncommon
in a few counties of southeastern North Carolina and one county of the
Thanks to the generosity of Rankin’s
granddaughter, Dorothy Rankin, and the efforts of UNC Herbarium associate Bruce Sorrie, we recently received a large archive of Rankin’s
correspondence, which promises to be a treasure trove of historical insights
into botanical exploration of North Carolina’s Coastal Plain.
Parnassia caroliniana from
Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913.
An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British
Vol. 2: 212