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Seeing the State

"Everyone may easily master the eleven major plant communities which with their numerous subdivisions constitute a glory of the state second to none."

B. W. Wells
"The Patchwork of North Carolina's Great Green Quilt"
North Carolina Agriculture and Industry
October 23, 1924

In 1924, only four years after setting out, Wells was able to produce his first scientific paper on the ecology of the state; "Major Plant Communities of North Carolina." It is, according to the introduction, the first attempt to use a modern system of ecological classification to present the plant communities of the state. His observations led him to define eleven zones spreading from sea to mountains. They are labeled according to their dominant vegetation, providing the reader with a summary of their distribution, habitat, and associated plants, as well as the successional changes occurring within the zone.

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Sea oats
Uniola paniculata L.

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Live oak
Quercus virginiana P. Miller
Specimen of Quercus virginiana on northeast facing coast near Nags Head

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Rain-hat trumpet
Sarracenia minor Walt.

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Cattails by the mile in the fresh water of Currituck Sound. View from Whale's Head lighthouse.
"The Patchwork of North Carolina's Great Green Quilt"
North Carolina Agriculture and Industry
October 23, 1924

After completing his scientific evaluation, Wells published a six-part essay in the college newspaper. His narrative takes the reader on a journey using rich language alongside a selection of what the editor called "the most complete set of pictures of North Carolina's native vegetation obtainable." He avoids using scientific names for zones. Instead, the dunes and the mountains come alive with the interactions of plants and habitat so that the reader may appreciate the state's diversity and beauty. Science is woven throughout the essays, but Wells' personality shines though as well. Of the savanna, he states: "In every large family it is said that a parent will love one child just a trifle more than the others. The author must here quickly confess that...this one has 'the edge' in his affection and interest."

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The cypress patriarch of White Lake, with his luxuriant beard of Spanish moss.
"Plant Communities of the Coastal Plain of North Carolina and Their Successional Relations." Ecology
B. W. Wells
1928

Wells would revisit his overviews of the plant communities of the state. In scientific form, he published papers such as this one, which divides the plant communities of the coastal plain even further into 15 separate communities. In it he introduces the critical roles that fire and soil moisture play in plant succession. To measure soil moisture, he defines the concept, still used today, of a hydroperiod-the time during which the water table is at or near the surface of the soil.

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