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The Weed Man

Panhandle plant lover Angus Gholson has spent most of his lifetime pursuing botanical wonders that have led to his ''step into eternity.''

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 4, 2002

BRISTOL -- To explore the Garden of Eden, Angus Gholson Jr. pulls on his duck boots and grabs a walking stick of tough persimmon. He knows how treacherous paradise can be, especially for a man so focused on spotting rare plants that he might miss his next step.

Gholson, 81, has spent most of his life clambering around the high bluffs and deep ravines along the Apalachicola River, a wilderness so beautiful that a local promoter once claimed it was the original home of Adam and Eve.

He stops near one shady ravine to point out an autumn bloom aptly called "summer farewell." Then he peers closely at a green stalk with tiny purple flowers, a wildflower commonly called a blazing star.

Gholson growls that this is not the right blazing star, not the one he's looking for. The one he's hunting is a newly discovered species.

And it was just named after him.

In the scientific journal announcing the discovery of Liatris gholsonii, Florida State University professor Loran Anderson explained that he named the flower for Gholson because he's "an indefatigable field botanist."

That's an understatement. Nobody knows the flora of North Florida better.

"He knows where every plant is," said Wendy Zomlefer, a University of Georgia botanist who has known Gholson for more than 20 years.

Although Gholson holds no advanced degrees, botanists from around the country flock to his home in Chattahoochee to consult him. Professors drag their graduate students out to join him on nature hikes.

Some visitors are initially fooled by Gholson's folksy manner or his accent, thick as tupelo honey.

Ask how he's doing and he'll say, "Acting like I got money, but I ain't."

He calls the Apalachicola a "riv-uh," and wiregrass comes out "waaaahrgrass."

Yet so great is his knowledge of botany that he can spot the difference between two kinds of sedges at 10 paces, "where the rest of us have to put them under a microscope," Anderson said.

Scientists and students who try to keep up with him invariably wind up panting in exhaustion.

He never travels in a straight line, not even on a highway. Gholson is so easily distracted that Zomlefer has learned not to let him sit behind her when she's driving: "To get me to stop and look at plants, he'll pull on my seat belt and just about strangle me."

Sure enough, as Gholson searches the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Nature Preserve for his namesake wildflower, other plants catch his eye and pull him off the trail: a tiny fungus sprouting on a fallen pine, a stately magnolia that he says puts out blossoms "big as a dinner plate."

He admires an enormous spider that has spun an elaborate web between two turkey oaks.

"See ol' cuz here?" Gholson asks, pointing. "She got a male around here somewhere, a little bitty thing. After she uses him, she kills him."

He grins and adds, "Maybe it's worth dyin' for."

To Florida State University president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, who has known Gholson all his life, Gholson is part of a dying breed -- he's a citizen-scientist, like Thomas Jefferson.

But in his hometown, Gholson's expertise has earned him a different reputation.

"Oh, you mean the Weed Man!" said Joe Bradley, owner of Bradley's IGA Grocery.

When one of Chattahoochee's 4,000 residents spots an unidentified weed, "they call me," Gholson explains. "It's not just weeds, either. Yesterday a lady at City Hall called me and said, 'Hey, we got a bunch of worms over here.' "

After asking a few questions, Gholson figured out the basket of "worms" someone had brought to City Hall were caterpillars.

That's what happens to the hometown science wiz. Gholson still lives in the house where he grew up. It's the grandest home in town, built by his father, feed store owner and justice of the peace A.K. "Happy" Gholson Sr.

Gholson's father "was 5 foot 1 and smoked one of those crooked old pipes and wore high-top shoes," remembered D'Alemberte's brother Dick. When the judge held court, spectators sat on the feed sacks.

Gholson's mother, Annie Mae, was "a stately woman who knew her values," Dick D'Alemberte said. "I think he got his love of nature from his parents. They were the kind of people who don't like to cut a tree."

Gholson, then known as "Goat," first gained local fame as a nimble high school quarterback. Back then schools too small to field a regular football squad played with six-man teams. Gholson's six-man team beat all comers, even a squad from Kentucky.

World War II put Gholson in a plane, dropping bombs on the Nazis. After the war, he refused to ever fly again, figuring he'd used up all his luck.

He got a degree in forestry from the University of Florida and married his high school sweetheart, Eloise. They have been married 59 years, even though he admits, "I carry on a bunch of damn foolishness."

Gholson stands atop a bluff overlooking a wide bend in the Apalachicola River, gazing down on what he calls "one of the prettiest views in Florida."

The river gave him a living for 36 years. He managed the Lake Woodruff reservoir for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His reservoir work focused his attention on plants: their importance, their diversity, their beauty.

"Three things are very important: air, water and food," Gholson says. "You can't do without air but for just a damn few seconds. You can't do without water or food for long, either. All of it comes from plants."

He always totes a Sparco composition book with him to jot down his observations. He collects plant specimens, so many that he converted a garage behind his house into a climate-controlled herbarium. It contains 15,000 specimens, which he has promised to bequeath to the University of Florida.

For years his frequent collecting partner was University of Florida professor Bob Godfrey, notorious among strait-laced colleagues for his salty language.

Sometimes, Gholson says, he and Godfrey would "put a few beers in our lunch and then set off to go way down somewhere, and we'd never get there -- and lots of times the same thing would happen to our beer." Eventually they had to agree not to touch the beer until lunch.

A few months ago, Anderson announced to a small crowd of botanists -- including Gholson -- that the University of Florida's 180,000-specimen herbarium would be named for the late Godfrey. Then he revealed he was naming the newly discovered blazing star after Gholson.

"He gasped, and everybody applauded," Anderson said.

The double announcement seemed appropriate because Gholson and Godfrey collected samples from the river's bluffs and ravines, though at that point nobody knew it was biologically distinct from other blazing stars, Anderson said.

Much of the Liatris gholsonii that exists grows on this preserve, bought by the Nature Conservancy. Some of the original vegetation had been stripped, and now the conservancy staff is restoring it with Gholson's help.

A couple of hours after starting his hike, Gholson spots what may be one of his flowers on the steep downslope of a ravine that drops about 40 feet to the bottom. He eases down to the spot and then kneels on a carpet of soggy oak leaves to get a closer look.

Sure enough, this is the genuine Gholson blazing star, its tiny blooms bobbing in the breeze. Gholson declines to agree that the honor is at all justified.

"A lot of things happen in spite of you, not because of you," he says. Still, he admits: "This might be a step into eternity."

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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