Jim Fowler found beauty in green places and in broken places. In details so small they were practically invisible. In colors and shapes, patterns and anomalies.
He found beauty in orchids and worked tirelessly to understand, preserve and share what he saw.
A Greenville resident, he spent decades studying and photographing the vast diversity of the flowers in the Carolinas and across North America, becoming a respected authority among researchers and enthusiasts.
He died of a heart attack June 25 at Mt. Mitchell State Park where he was researching purple fringed orchids for the Smithsonian Institution. He was 74.
His husband Walter Ezell said Fowler’s unwavering passion and dedication to the work was a constant source of inspiration.
“People would come from Indiana, Wisconsin, all around so he could take them on an outing and guide them and show them where this stuff was,” he said.
Fowler’s quest to study and document orchids in the wild brought him to the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains and to the Green Swamp of North Carolina, but also to a trailer park in Newfoundland, Canada and to countless highway shoulders, where orchids often hide just beyond the tree line.
“He liked disturbed land because, for some reason, a lot of them tend to grow best where things have been disturbed,” said Dylan Fowler, his son.
He had an uncanny ability to remember where certain species of orchid had taken root and meticulously recorded observations on expeditions year after year. He noted whether mowing nearby seemed to help or hinder, how much light they were getting, the plants nearby.
Melissa McCormick, a research scientist with the Smithsonian, said Fowler’s encyclopedic knowledge of the flowers and their locations, and his painstaking attention to detail, made him an invaluable partner.
“He was a friend, a great person to talk to, and a great resource,” she said. “It’s a huge loss.”
Fowler married his love of orchids with his passion for photography, using his expertly taken images to raise awareness for the flowering plants, and to record measurements and characteristics for research purposes. In 2020, the U.S. Post Office released 10 orchid stamps using Fowler’s photos, joining his love for photography and botany with his longtime interest in stamp collecting, one of the first things he and Ezell bonded over.
The two met at a fundraiser for a gay rights organization at Fowler’s Mills Avenue home in 1992.
“I did the introvert thing which is once you find someone interesting to talk to you hook onto them and you don’t let go,” Ezell said.
While the two shared an intense appreciation for the hobby of stamp collecting, Fowler’s interest extended to the most nuanced aspects of the printing process, from the kinds of presses used to the differences in tagging that can only be seen under an ultraviolet light.
It’s a fixation on variation and peculiarity he carried over to his love of botany.
While one species of daisy may be different from another, McCormick said, they ultimately look like the same kind of flower. But different kinds of orchids, she said, can look and behave is wildly different ways and can be found north of the Arctic Circle as well as in balmy swampland. Beyond that, there are deviations within each species, often so nuanced and precise that the line between simple variant and distinct subspecies often becomes blurred.
Fowler reveled in those intricacies and explored them fervently. It was work he pursued to the moment he died, as he investigated a hybrid of two kinds of fringed orchid.
“Jim was really amazing about asking questions of what he observed as well as being able to see the details that most people would just miss,” McCormick said. “He interacted with us a lot as researchers to try to understand what these differences were, what was causing them and why they were important to the species.”
In addition to his work with the Smithsonian and his widely published photos, Fowler ran a blog that had hundreds of regular followers. He also wrote two books: “Wild Orchids of South Carolina” and “Orchids, Carnivorous Plants, and Other Wildflowers of the Green Swamp, North Carolina.”
Ezell said he has received an outpouring of support from researchers, naturalists and botanists who worked with Fowler, including Clemson University professor Patrick McMillan, host of ETV’s Expeditions with Patrick McMillan and director of the Heronswood Garden in Washington state.
“His love of all things natural and conservation was not awarded enough attention,” McMillan wrote in an email to Ezell. “So much of the rarest and most unusual flora and habitats in South Carolina have the work of his hand evident in their persistence, because he cared.”
Follow Conor Hughes on Twitter at @ConorJHughes.