Liriodendron tulipifera flower

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Herbarium (NCU)
A Department of the North Carolina Botanical Garden


Collectors of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium

Albert E. Radford
( 25 January 1918 - 12 April 2006)


The name Al Radford is familiar to anyone who has taken even an introductory course in botany at UNC, probably as the first part of "Radford, Ahles, and Bell," or, Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas, which has served the botanically-inclined of both Carolinas as a sort of floristic bible since its publication in 1968. Known familiarly as "the green book," (although its latest printing is a definite purple!), this work lists all known vascular plants in North and South Carolina, with keys, descriptions, county distribution maps, and small but very useful line drawings.

Radford was also the first author of Vascular Plant Systematics (1974) and Fundamentals of Plant Systematics (1986), both now out of print, but still extremely useful to students.


Portrait ca. 1985 by Lance Richardson Photography

Radford was born in Augusta, Georgia and received his B.S. degree at Furman University in 1939. He
earned his doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1948. As a teacher, Radford was especially known for his field trips, on which, he boasted "as far as I'm aware, I've never had a student bitten [by a snake] and I've never been bitten."

In 1991, Radford was awarded the Elizabeth Ann Bartholomew Award of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society. The Association of Southeastern Biologists presented him with their Meritorious Teacher Award in 1978. Dr. Radford's service included presidency of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society and the Southern Appalachian Botanical Club.

A final area of accomplishment for Dr. Radford was in the conservation of natural areas throughout the Southeast. He served as a consultant for the North Carolina Nature Conservancy and worked with the Natural Landmarks Program.

Radford's association with the University of North Carolina Herbarium (NCU) was intimate—"This represents my life -- what's where and why." Radford was Director of the Herbarium for 23 years, spearheading a five-fold increase in the herbarium's collections during that time period.

"Dr. Radford exemplifies the best in service to botany and to the public. His offerings have not been shallow nor superficial; rather, his contributions and service have been solid and enduring."—Nancy C. Coile, from Castanea 56: 153-154.


Complete list of A. E. Radford's publications compiled by Couch Biology Library, Botany Section, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Below is a sample of Radford's handwriting and signature. This item is from the archives of the UNC Herbarium and is used with permission. Radford's collected papers are available in the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus..

Radford handwriting sample

My recollections of A.E. Radford
by Steve W. Leonard
April 14, 2006

From January 1968 until the end of 1971 I was privileged to be employed by the University as Herbarium Curator—a position handed to me by Dr. Radford—and I never knew what happened behind the scenes to make it happen. The Herbarium was already well along on the Carolinas exchange program with 105 participating institutions when I got there. Later we expanded to 125 and then 135. As a result the place was busy with boxes arriving and boxes being sent out all over the world. Mrs. Snow and Mrs. Harper were the two principal part-time employees with incoming specimens. Nancy Clark and Betty Hall were two of the administrative secretarial people whom I recall, and we had a long list of undergraduate and graduate student assistants.

But this account is not about students or herbarium workers but about the Man, himself and some of my recollections from numerous field trips into various parts of the Carolinas. My introduction into the Radford modus operandi occurred in the fall of 1967 when I was invited to accompany John Bozeman and Radford on a collecting trip to lower South Carolina. I knew almost no plants so I had to pick up as much instruction as possible along the way. One of our first stops was at a pond behind some church in upper South Carolina and I was told to gather specimens of a grass growing in the edge of the lake. As carefully as I could, I squatted along the bank and reached out as far as possible to snatch stems of my quarry, being careful not to get wet! In a few moments I looked up at the sound of great splashing to see Radford wading along the margin of the pond, knee-deep in water while concentrating in his methodical manner on all species visible and some no doubt he expected to find. I thought if it is okay for him to get wet, then it is okay for me, and from that day onward—even to this—I rarely wear boots, and will plunge in, Radford fashion, if it is not over my head. When the three day field trip had ended and all of our collections were pressed, the three of us had gathered 4,607 specimens for exchange.

I haven’t done it but I could go back through my accession books to see how many trips the two of us made. Sometimes a graduate student would go with us but the best trips were those when he and I were alone. I learned the knack of driving with one eye focused on the highway and the other focused on the roadside plants. We could travel mile after mile with never a word said. In the early days I waited for him to issue the “Stop” command but eventually I gained enough confidence to stop on my own when something stuck out of the roadside flora or when an interesting place was spotted. We always started our days promptly at 7AM, spent as little time as possible for lunch if we ate at all, and collected until dark. If it rained, we got wet. At nightfall we hunted for the standard Holiday Inn ($14/night for a room with two double beds) and a local eatery.

One of our most remarkable field trips coincided with a minor hurricane off the coast of South Carolina. From the time we crossed into South Carolina it rained and rained and rained some more. We stowed our wet clothes in our standard military rubberized laundry bags that were used for packing the bundles of collections. The next day on one of the coastal islands near Charleston during an absolute monsoonal deluge, we collected the wonderful beach primrose, Oenothera drummondii, with its huge yellow flowers. Dripping with water we decided to change back into our clothes of the previous day that were damp though not wringing wet. In the humidity and heat, they had soured. But they were less wet than what we were wearing, so we changed right there in front of the disbelieving world, and spent the rest of our smelly journey with the heater on and the windows down!

There were very few times when Radford revealed anything of his early years or his private life. On one occasion when we lodged in Edgefield, South Carolina he told me about his high school years of playing baseball in Edgefield and how his family had moved frequently (17 times by the time he had finished high school). It may have been on that occasion that he told me about his brothers and sisters—there were nine altogether—and seven earned Ph.D. degrees. He never discussed his military career, and never elaborated on family matters. I suppose such focus and mental discipline came from his determination to succeed or from his military indoctrination. The only time I ever heard him utter a profane word was when he was quoting one of his teachers, Professor Roland Totten. I guess the story is worth telling.

Dr. Totten had an interest in giant trees of each species but harbored a fear of snakes. On one of his field trips into the swamp of the Roanoke River at the head of Albemarle Sound in eastern North Carolina where a huge bald cypress supposedly grew, Dr. Totten was leading his small class of students when all at once he encountered a large coiled rattlesnake on the bank of a small stream in a canebreak thicket. At the sight of the serpent, Dr. Totten uttered an irreverential “Great god a-mighty!” and jumped straight up, almost landing on the snake when he came down, according to Radford who chuckled over recalling Dr. Totten’s dilemma.

One piece of advice—a warning—Radford left with me characterizes the man in a special way. He said if you are going to do something, get at least 40 percent of it done before you announce what you are doing. He was both a realist and an idealist. He was acquainted with unprofessionalism in botany having himself been burned, but he looked for the positive—the potential in an individual. He gave me the benefit of the doubt and for that I am grateful.

Steve Leonard
PO Box 310

Wiggins, MS 39577


Photograph ca. 1974 by Laurie Stewart Radford: University of North Carolina botany class field trip to Dolly Sods, West Virginia.
Dr. Al Radford is in the center, wearing baseball cap.
If anyone recognizes the students, please email so we can add their names to this caption.


Memories Dr. A. E. Radford and of “Radford”
by L. L. Gaddy
May 1, 2006

I have tucked under a pile of books on the bottom shelf of an old bookcase my first copy of Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas, by A. E. Radford, H. E. Ahles, and C. R. Bell. I bought it in 1971 or so for just over ten dollars. It originally had a green hardcover (the newer editions have a purple cover). The cover illustration was the Venus flytrap, a Carolina endemic and one of the world’s most famous (or “wonderful,” as Darwin put it) plants. Dalibarda repens is now on the cover (I really don’t know why). My first copy is now coverless and is falling apart. I keep it for the memories of my early botanical years.

The manual was generally referred to as “Radford,” people having dropped the Ahles and Bell—out of convenience, not disrespect for these two junior authors. “Radford” was (and still is) quoted like the botanical bible of the Carolinas. “Radford says….this…, Radford says…that…, Radford has Viola tripartita from Macon County, Radford claims Ludwigia linifolia is rare, and Radford says Actaea pachypoda is found in rich woods (whatever that means).” This book sometimes seemed more real than Nature herself. We, the young botanists of the seventies, would often check “Radford” to see if the plants were growing where they were supposed to grow…and, most of the time, they were. Albert Radford died last month in Missouri at the age of 88. In his 1183-page manual and now in his death, he became and has become greater than himself—as W. H. Auden said of W. B. Yeats after the passing of the latter, “he became his admirers.”

Dr. Albert E. Radford was born in Augusta, Georgia in 1918. He attended Furman University and later became Professor of Botany at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Radford the man was large in stature and had a gravelly, somewhat high-pitched southern voice. He was always willing to dispense good botanical advice to those who accompanied him on his field excursions throughout the Carolinas. In his office in Chapel Hill, he often seemed preoccupied and grouchy, as are most field botanists when in office captivity. In the field, however, he seemed to be a different person. In the eighties, I remember once driving the old Panther Creek Road (on the GA-SC line) on Easter Sunday in an open-air jeep. A white van filled with students pulled up beside me on the dirt road; the driver, dressed in khaki, looked me straight in the eye with a knowing smile. It was Dr. Radford, pursuing his religion, in that holiest of sanctuaries, the southern Appalachians.

I am sure Dr. Radford was proud of the manual, which was often criticized as having many errors, but, in the long run, was generally recognized as one of the best, if not the best, regional floras in the country. He was also proud of his discovery of a bluff on Stevens Creek near Clarks Hill in South Carolina. Here, he had found a one-of-kind relict Pleistocene plant community with numerous state and regional floristic records. Radford was also a student of the sedge genus Carex and was ahead of his time in understanding the complexities of Carex ecology. Dr. Radford inspired many field botanists and produced outstanding students, many of whom are now teachers or herbarium curators (former students of his are on the editorial board of both Flora of North America and Flora of China !). In his final university years, he spent time working on the natural areas of the southeastern United States and discussing methodologies with which to document such areas. His concept of “ecosystematics,” refined in Vascular Plant Systematics, was original and complex, and strongly influenced numerous southeastern botanists, including myself.

In the seventies, I had asked Dr. Radford about unexplored areas in the southern Appalachians. He told me about the Brevard Belt, its complex geologic structure, and its undocumented flora. Years later when I found a new species of Carex endemic to the Brevard Belt of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina (it only took ten years to describe it and get it published), I named it Carex radfordii in honor of the man who told me where to look.

L. L. Gaddy
terra incognita
125 South Edisto Avenue
Columbia, South Carolina 29205


Jay Kranyik's photograph of his well-used Manual, in use in Dupont Forest.
Jay adds, "I have pictures of Botanists glued to the inside covers of my Radford
(sometimes when I need some help, I lay my palm on their picture and channel their wisdom)."
May, 2006.

Jay Kranyik
Botanical Gardens of Asheville
Asheville, North Carolina


"Dr. Al" and Conservation
 by J. Dan Pittillo
18 May 2006

Dr. Albert E. Radford is perhaps he is best known for his contribution to botanical knowledge that began with the Flora of the Carolinas project. The team of University of North Carolina botanists included several students that received their masters degrees by compiling floras of various counties. After only a decade this project resulted in two publications. He, along with Harry E. Ahles and C. Ritchie Bell, published the Guide to the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas in 1964, with the subsequent publication of the Atlas of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas in 1965. I had the privilege to join this group in my last two years of high school, submitting a collection from Henderson County, NC. The final product of this ground-breaking effort was the well known Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas in 1968, complete with county records for which collections were either made or documented from other herbaria.

What many people do not realize is that Dr. Radford was a key player in the establishment of the Natural Heritage Program for North Carolina. This effort began in 1976 with then Governor Holzhouser's appointment of the committee under the guidance of The Nature Conservancy. Dr. Al, as we fondly called him, insisted that we make this program a line-item budgeted by the State, and it has resulted in perhaps the best Natural Heritage Program in the Southeast.

For Dr. Al's tireless efforts we can all be grateful that we not only have a fine reference for identifying the plants of the Carolinas, but we also have a program that helps protect the habitats for this flora as well.

J. Dan Pittillo
675 Cane Creek Road
Sylva, North Carolina 28779


Field trip to Bluff Mountain, Ashe County, North Carolina September 10, 1978. Photograph by Laurie Stewart Radford.
From left to right: Laura Mansberg Cotterman (now Publications & Publicity Coordinator for the North Carolina Botanical Garden);
Al Radford; Alan Weakley (now Curator of the UNC Herbarium);
Mary Love May (UNC-CH, M.S., 1981
“Vegetation, seed reserve, and environmental relationships in the sandhills, Sandhill Wildlife Management Area, Hoffman, North Carolina”)


Albert E. Radford, my teacher and role model
by J. Rex Baird

3 June 2006

In 1959, I enrolled in a plant taxonomy course at UNC, and I was hooked. As a graduate student in the Department of Botany during the next few years, I took every course that Dr. Al taught and was also fortunate enough to serve as his assistant during several summer sessions when he taught introductory botany or plant taxonomy courses. In a word, he was fantastic! It was in his courses that I was introduced to the real meaning of a “smilax climax”, to the joys of a cranberry bog, and the many other memorable experiences that later served me well when I began my own career in the field and classroom. Although never as successful as he, I tried to emulate his classroom and field techniques, and I tried to have a “Radford story” to tell as often as possible.

As I type this on my computer, I see on the wall above my desk the pictures of three men who had the greatest influence on my career as a professor. Dr. Al is there, along with Dr. Roland Totten (with whom I actually shared an office during my last year at Chapel Hill), and Harry Ahles. What a lineup of great teachers I have been privileged to have. But Dr. Al was special. He was always there during the inevitable graduate student struggles. And I’ll never forget the smile on his face at the conclusion of my final oral examination. I knew then that everything was okay. Yes, he really was my role model!

J. Rex Baird
Professor of Biology, Emeritus
University of Virginia’s College at Wise


Not bitten, but Stung
 by Kathy Seaton

Chapel Hill, NC

I know Radford claims to “never have been bitten.” Maybe so, but I know he was stung! We were on a long field trip to the mountains, we’d stopped at a site, and Dr. Radford had been stung but didn’t tell anybody. He was severely allergic to bees and wasps, and Laurie always brought along his epi-pen (anti-anaphylactic shock shot), but on this occasion she was not with us, though she HAD packed it.

We got back in the vans – I was in the van behind his – and drove on to the next site, out in the middle of nowhere. When we got out, the students in his van tumbled out looking pale and asking frantically “does anybody know how to give a shot?!” Dr. Radford had begun to suffer from the sting: his neck was very swollen and he was beginning to have difficulty breathing. Luckily I had lots of experience both because my daughter was asthmatic and because one of our goats had had mastitis. So I said, “Sure,” gave him the first injection, waited ten minutes, gave him the second dose, which did finally turn the symptoms around.

As soon as he was recovered, he insisted on exploring the second site, though if he had gotten stung again, we wouldn’t have any way to treat it. Typical stubbornness!

Later he discovered that I had gotten my experience giving a goat a shot, which he thought was very funny. He told me, chuckling, that it was perfect experience for giving this old goat (himself) a shot.

Others have mentioned how his gruffness in the office disappeared in the field. I always thought of him as a great big teddy bear, gruff on the outside but obviously loving and lovable, wanting to share his knowledge with everybody. He taught all of us so much, not just every plant in the southeast, but a good attitude toward life, curious about everything. I still miss him.


Dr. A. E. Radford teaching botany in Coker Hall
date unknown, photographer unknown



This page was constructed by Ron Gilmour with the assistance of Mr. Bill Burk, Mrs. Mary Felton,
Dr. Jim Massey, and Mr. Jim Murphy.
Edited and updated by Carol Ann McCormick in 2019. Additional information and corrections are welcome;
please email them to Carol Ann McCormick, Curator of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium, at



University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU)
CB# 3280, Coker Hall
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3280
phone: (919) 962-6931


Last Updated: 1 July 2019