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Plant Focus

Quercus texana New Madrid acorn
Disentangling the cultivar published as Quercus texana ‘New Madrid’.

Plant Collecting Collaborative Expedition to the Southeastern United States

The Southeastern United States was largely spared from glaciation, explaining in part the much greater level of plant diversity of the region compared to the Northeastern and Midwest regions. For example, the state of Alabama boasts 40 native Quercus species alone, and the region overall is home to 5 rare oaks of conservation concern:  Q. acerifolia (maple-leaf oak), Q.arkansana (Arkansas oak), Q. boyntonii (Boynton sand post oak), Q. georgiana (Georgia oak), and Q. oglethorpensis (Oglethorpe oak). It was therefore a region of interest for the newly reformed Plant Collecting Collaborative (PCC), a group of United States Botanical Garden Professionals.

From left to right: Cat Meholic, Greg Paige, Tim Boland, Tom Patrick collecting Quercus oglethorpensis in Oconee National Forest -
Photo: © Matt Lobdell

Following the 2015 IOS Conference, the PCC traveled to the Southeastern United States on a seed collection expedition with a goal of collecting as many Quercus taxa as possible, particularly focusing on species of conservation concern. This was the first PCC expedition to occur in the last five years and was led by Matt Lobdell (Head of Collections and Curator, The Morton Arboretum), with other participants at varying stages of the trip including Andrew Bunting (Chicago Botanic Garden), Ethan Kauffman (Moore Farms Botanical Garden), Greg Paige (Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories and Arboretum), Tim Boland (The Polly Hill Arboretum), Amy Highland, and Cat Meholic (both from Mt. Cuba Center).

The group began their journey near the city of Orange Beach, Alabama on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where they were guided by Patrick Thompson (Davis Arboretum of Auburn University) and local landscape architect Daniel Neil. Despite high winds and rain in the aftermath of Hurricane Patricia, the group was able to collect acorns of Q. geminata, Q. hemisphaerica, Q. laevis, Q. minima, and Q. virginiana. A small population of Q. arkansana in Gulf State Park (likely the southernmost distribution of the species) was also visited, though it was not bearing fruit.

Quercus arkansana in Gulf State Park, one of the southernmost populations of this species -
Photo: © Matt Lobdell

Next, the group traveled to central Alabama (mainly the Birmingham area) in hopes of collecting seed from several populations of Q. boyntonii and one of Q. georgiana. Led by Fred Spicer (Birmingham Botanical Gardens), the first stop was a residential neighborhood in the city of Mountain Brook, where Mr. Spicer had previously observed two large Q. boyntonii preserved in the lawns of residential properties. As Birmingham is a post-Reconstruction city dating from 1871 and Mountain Brook itself was developed as a residential community beginning in the 1920s, commercial availability of Q. boyntonii during the area’s development, if any, would have been quite limited.  Consequently, these trees are thought to be remnants of a previously existing, more extensive population. Though one of the two trees appeared in poor condition, the other was performing better and produced a quantity of acorns suitable for collection.

The next stop was the parking lot of an industrial facility, where Howard Hughes (Birmingham Botanical Gardens) had previously noticed several plants he suspected to be Q. boyntonii. Further investigation confirmed his suspicions and seed collections were made from four fruiting plants.

After these forays in residential and industrial contexts, the group collected in a truly natural setting, the Moss Rock Preserve. Though evidence of human encroachment was still visible given spontaneous seedlings of Camellia sasanqua and Nandina domestica, the lands were of much greater quality the further the group hiked. One collection of Q. boyntonii was made, but none of the observed Q. georgiana in the shady area was fruiting.

Brian Keener leading the group through the Bibb County Glades. From left to right: Amy Highland, Wayne K. Webb, Greg Paige, Ethan Kauffman, Brian Keener -
Photo: © Matt Lobdell

Finally, upon reaching an open, flat rock habitat, one solitary Q. georgiana revealed itself with a significant quantity of fruit for collection. Other Quercus taxa of interest collected here included Q. coccinea and Q. montana.

Western Alabama was the next area of exploration, where two days were spent under the guidance of Dr. Brian Keener (University of West Alabama) and Wayne K. Webb (Superior Trees). The group visited a variety of sites from the chalky outcrops of the Tombigbee River, the Swann Covered Bridge over the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, to the botanically famous Bibb County Glades. Highlights included two collections of Q. arkansana in Sumter County and a collection of Q. boyntonii in St. Clair County.

Before the journey was done, two more states were visited. First was Georgia, where the group was able to observe and collect from a large population of Q. oglethorpensis and Q. shumardii in Oconee National Forest under the guidance of John Jensen and Tom Patrick (Georgia Department of Natural Resources). We then traveled south to the Fall Line Sandhills Wildlife Management Area where an additional four species were collected: Q. hemisphaerica, Q. incana, Q. laevis, and Q. margarettae. Finally, the last stop was made in western South Carolina, where one more collection of Q. oglethorpensis was made in McCormick County along with collections of Q. coccinea and Q. marilandica.


Swann Covered Bridge, spanning the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River in Blount County, Alabama –
Photo: © Matt Lobdell

The expedition was by most counts a success, with the collections of Q. boyntonii in both St. Clair and Jefferson Counties, Alabama, representing germplasm not currently in ex-situ conservation in North American botanical gardens and arboreta, likely the most valuable. However, not all was good news: Mike Gibson (Huntsville Botanical Garden) guided an effort to locate a disjunct population of Q. georgiana in Limestone County (northern Alabama), only to find the site had been recently logged. Similarly, efforts to locate documented populations of the species in Chambers and Randolph Counties, Alabama (near the Georgia Border) were unsuccessful, though they could hopefully still be located given a more concerted scouting effort. Still, seed from the 28 collections of Quercus species are currently in production at The Morton Arboretum, Chicago Botanic Garden, and several other institutions nationwide where the plants will be utilized for ex-situ conservation, research purposes, and general appreciation by the oak enthusiast.