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A Search for Rare Oak Species Yields Results

Plant Collecting Collaborative visits Southeastern United States

Andrew Bunting —  January 21, 2016 — 2 Comments

On October 25 last year, I met Matt Lobdell, curator at the Morton Arboretum, in Orange Beach, Alabama, to begin a ten-day plant expedition trip to Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. 

Matt Lobdell had received a grant from the American Public Gardens Association and the U.S. Forest Service in the spring to collect seed of Quercus oglethorpensis from as many genetic populations as possible, so that the breadth of this species could be preserved in ex-situ collections in botanic gardens and arboreta. This expedition was an opportunity to collect this species and other important oak species, as well as other species of trees, shrubs, and perennials that could be added to our collections.

We were targeting the collection of four oaks with conservation status: Oglethorpe oak (Quercus oglethorpensis), Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana), Boynton sand post oak (Quercus boyntonii), and Arkansas oak (Quercus arkansana). All four of these oaks are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which identifies plants that have important conservation status. (Quercus georgiana and Q. oglethorpensis are listed as endangered.)

PHOTO: Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum and Greg Paige at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum make an herbarium voucher of Quercus boyntonii.

Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum and Greg Paige at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum make an herbarium voucher of Quercus boyntonii.

Any successful plant expedition is the result of a very collaborative effort. Because we are often looking for hard-to-find species, we rely on local experts. For different parts of the trip we had guidance from Mike Gibson of Huntsville Botanical Garden; John Jensen and Tom Patrick at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources; Brian Keener at the University of Western Alabama, assisted by Wayne K. Webb at Superior Trees; Fred Spicer, CEO of Birmingham Botanical Gardens; and Patrick Thompson of Davis Arboretum at Auburn University.

We were also joined by other institutions that helped with both the collection of seed and the associated data, but also helped with the collecting of two herbarium vouchers for each collection (pressed specimens), which are now housed in the herbaria at the Morton Arboretum and Chicago Botanic Garden respectively. Assistance was provided by Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum; Amy Highland and Cat Meholic of Mt. Cuba Center; Ethan Kauffman of Moore Farms Botanical Garden; and Greg Paige from Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum.

Our expedition begins

On October 26, we collected at Gulf State Park in pelting rain and very high winds that resulted from the remnants of Hurricane Patricia, which had made landfall near Puerto Vallarta days earlier. Nevertheless, we found several small, windswept oaks in this sandy habitat, including Q. myrtifolia, Q. minima, Q. geminata, and Q. chapmanii.

PHOTO: Talladega National Forest

Talladega National Forest

The next day, we moved north to the Talladega National Forest in central Alabama. In addition to collecting more oaks, we made collections of the beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Euonymus americanus, and the buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). We also saw fantastic specimens of the big-leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), but we were too late to find any viable seed.

PHOTO: Quercus boyntonii

Quercus boyntonii

Fred Spicer, CEO of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, joined us the next day, October 28, to take us to several populations of Q. boyntonii, where we were able to make collections for six different populations. He also took us to Moss Rock Preserve in Jefferson County, where we made collections of the Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana). We also made a collection of the Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera).

On October 30, we spent the day in Sumter County, Alabama, with Brian Keener, where we encountered Quercus arkansana, Dalea purpurea, Viburnum rufidulum, and Liatris aspera.

On October 31, we botanized in Blount County, Alabama, at Swann Bridge. Below the bridge was a small river, where we saw an array of interesting plants including the yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima); hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana); a small St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum); and a native stewartia (Stewartia malacodendron), in which we were able to find a few seeds. From there we continued on to the Bibb County Glades and collected Silphium glutinosum and Hypericum densiflorum.

PHOTO: Bibb County Glades

Bibb County Glades

PHOTO: Moss Rock Preserve at the habitat of Quercus georgiana

Moss Rock Preserve at the habitat of Quercus georgiana

On the following day, we made another collection of Quercus boyntonii in St. Clair Country and then headed to the Little River Canyon in Cherokee County. This was a rich area filled with native vegetation of many popular plants including the maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), with its wine-red fall color; both the smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), and the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia); the winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), and the Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus). Interestingly, many of these Alabama natives are perfectly hardy in the Chicago area.

Toward the end of the trip, we headed into Jasper County, Georgia, and met up with John Jensen and Tom Patrick of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who helped us find populations of Quercus oglethorpensis. In Taylor County, we collected several oaks, including Q. margarettae, Q. incana, and Q. laevis.

We finished the expedition in Sumter National Forest in McCormick County, South Carolina. This was the final collecting site for Q. oglethorpensis, which was cohabiting with Baptisia bracteata and Q. durandii.

PHOTO: Little River Canyon

Little River Canyon

PHOTO: Quercus ogelthorpensis seedlings in Jasper Country, Georgia

Quercus oglethorpensis seedlings in Jasper Country, Georgia

An expedition’s rewards

In total, we made 92 collections of seed and herbarium vouchers. The seed is being grown at both the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum. Most likely, plants will not be ready for distribution until 2017 and most likely would not be planted into the Garden’s collections until 2018 at the earliest.

In spring 2016, Northwestern University graduate student Jordan Wood will retrace some of our steps in search of leaf samples of Q. oglethorpensis so he can study the DNA and fully understand the genetic breadth of this species throughout its native range from Louisiana to South Carolina.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Alice the Amorphophallus, our titan arum (or corpse flower) is fruiting! Alice is on display at a new location in the Tropical Greenhouse here at the Chicago Botanic Garden so that all of our visitors may come see the beautiful, dark orange fruit that is developing.

As many of you know, we manually pollinated Alice’s flowers on the morning of September 29, 2015, after the plant began blooming late the previous evening. We used the pollen we had collected from Alice’s “brother” Spike a month earlier, plus pollen from the Denver Botanic Gardens’ bloom, Stinky (in the same bloom cycle as Spike). About half of the developing fruits are from Spike’s pollen and the other half are from Stinky’s pollen.

PHOTO: The remains of the spadix have been removed—showing its fibrous interior—as the titan arum's fruit continues to mature.

The remains of the spadix have been removed—showing its fibrous interior—as the titan arum’s fruit continues to mature.

It can take five to six months for the fruit to ripen, and the fruiting process is quite beautiful to observe, as the fruits change from a gold color to orange, and finally to a dark red color once ripened. After the 400+ fruits are ripe, we will harvest the fruits, and extract the two seeds that are produced by each fruit. We hope to germinate a few of these seeds in order to grow more titan arums to add to our collection—and increase the age diversity of the collection as well. (As many of our current plants have the same seed or corm source, they are all roughly the same age.) Some of the seeds will be shared and distributed to other botanical gardens, universities, and educational institutions as requested. The rest of the seeds harvested will be stored in our seed bank freezer in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. This will help with increasing the genetic diversity of the species and continue to aid with plant conservation efforts. 

I realize there are many questions that you may have regarding Alice’s fruit, many of which were asked during the time that Alice (and Spike) were on display last year.

DIAGRAM: Life Cycle of the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum).The titan arum is the largest non-branched inflorescence in the world, and it is found in the dense jungles of Sumatra. An inflorescence is a cluster of flowers—like a bouquet. The inflorescence of the titan arum is composed of two parts: The outer, purple, vase-like sheath (a single leaf) is called the spathe. It protects the inner tube-like spike called the spadix, which attracts pollinators. The flowers are small and are located on the base of the spadix. There are hundreds of them.

What does it mean that Alice is producing fruit?

The fruiting process of a titan arum is just like that of other flowering plants. After a flower is pollinated, the fleshy fruit develops (think of a cherry or apricot). The fruits of the titan arum grow from a yellow-gold to a more orange-red tone. When the fruit is fully ripened, about six months after pollination, it will have a soft outer flesh that is dark red in color. After fruiting, the plant will return to dormancy, and send up a leaf in its next growth cycle.

Does Alice still smell? 

No. Alice is not producing any odor and it is not blooming. Odor is only produced within the first 24–48 hours during the initial bloom. After flowering, Alice’s spathe shriveled and dried out, and was removed one week after the initial bloom. The spadix began to collapse five days after pollination; it was removed two months later after it was completely dried up. 

PHOTO: Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) leaf bud emerging from the soil.

A young leaf sprout displayed next to Alice’s fruit emerges from a small, young corm. A leaf stalk from a mature (older) corm would dwarf visitors, and would be heavy enough to be immovable during its growth cycle.

Will Alice bloom again?

Yes, but not in the near future. After the fruits mature, the plant will go dormant for a period of time, then produce a new leaf every year for a number of years. Once the corm’s energy has been replenished, Alice will bloom again. However, we now have 13 titan arums in the Garden’s collection, and we expect that another will bloom within the next year or two. We do not know when, as it is hard to predict—even in nature. The plant needs to recover and build up energy before it can flower again.  

What did you do with pollen from Alice?

Garden conservation scientists collected pollen from Alice during her bloom. Several small holes were cut in the spathe for manual pollination to take place. The same access holes were used to collect pollen later in the day. The pollen is now in cold storage to use in pollinating the next titan arum bloom at the Garden. We also share pollen with other botanic gardens, universities, and educational institutions.

Today, the Garden has 13 titan arums in its collection. But the increase in number is not the result of pollination. Just like many of our spring bulbs (such as narcissus, canna, and dahlias), the tuber, or bulb, that produces the flower for the titan arum grew additional bulbs that we hope will produce fully-grown plants.

PHOTO: Rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros).

Rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) ©2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) (Self-photographed) [GFDL 1.2 or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

Is the fruit edible?

In nature, the fruit is eaten by the rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros). Attracted by the brightly colored covering, the birds eat the fleshy fruits and excrete the hard, resistant inner seeds. The fruit is not suitable for human consumption.

What does the titan arum look like before it blooms?

This plant produces one leaf at a time for several years. The leaves start out small and get progressively larger each year. We have several in our production area now. The leaves photosynthesize and allow the plant to store energy in a large (sometimes weighing up to 40 pounds) underground tuber called a corm. Each leaf lasts about a year before it dyes back and goes dormant. Because flowering takes so much energy, it takes several years before the plant has enough energy stored to produce a flower. Alice took 12 years to come to flower!

Come out and see Alice and her fruit now through April 8, 2016. To learn more about Alice and Spike, the Chicago Botanic is offering a free lecture and Q&A about these two plant stars on Sunday, January 17, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. 

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

For many years, the Chicago Botanic Garden has made a concerted effort to use new and interesting plants to create innovative “wow” displays. Since coming to the Garden seven months ago, I have been continually impressed with this program and the institutional drive to make plants the priority to draw visitors to the Garden. 

The basic idea behind the “wow” program is to excite our visitors with provocative plantings (or a single fantastic plant). No plant or plants better exemplifies this program than our titan arums Spike and Alice, which created unprecedented “plantmania” at the Garden. Kris Jarantoski, executive vice president and director of the Garden, had speculated that someday the tiny bulbs we received 12 years ago might create a botanical spectacle unequaled in the greater Chicago area, and, well, he was right!

In the summer of 1984, I interned at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida (one year later I would intern at the Chicago Botanic Garden!). It was my first exposure to the incredible ornamental breadth offered by tropical plants. Since that summer, I have been back many, many times to explore the botanical gardens of South Florida, and on occasion, visit the wealth of wholesale nurseries. Thinking that this palette of plants could make for some provocative displays in selected gardens here, I proposed to Kris Jarantoski that our outdoor floriculturist Tim Pollak (better known to our readership as Titan Tim) and I take a five-day trip to Florida to explore the botanical riches of this area with the goal of finding future “wows.”

PHOTO: Fairchild Tropical Garden.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

With the help of Ian Simpkins, director of horticulture at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, we put together an ambitious itinerary to explore many of the specialty wholesale nurseries in the Homestead, Florida, area (this area is reported to have more than 2,000 nurseries), but also to see plants displayed in botanical gardens. We started our work on the last day of November. Thanks to Ian, we had a well-vetted list and were able to hit the ground running. During these (mostly) rain-free days, we visited 16 nurseries, and also spent quality time at the Montgomery Botanical Center, Fruit and Spice Park, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, and Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

PHOTO: Coccothrinax crinita.

Coccothrinax crinita

Botanics Wholesale was our first nursery tour stop. Here we saw incredible specimens of palms and cycads including the shaggy-stemmed old man palm, Coccothrinax crinita.

Nearby at Redland Nursery, we received a tour and saw an array of very unusual palms such as the bottle palm, Hyophorbe lagenicaulis, and Hyophorbe verschaffeltii, spindle palm.

We continued our tour of nurseries in the Homestead area with a visit to Bullis Bromeliads. This nursery only features epiphytic plants—specifically bromeliads. (While they are epiphytes in their native habitats, they make an excellent container plant in the summer landscape.)

Bullis offers a broad selection of cultivars of many genera including Aechmea, Androlepis, Billbergia, Guzmania, Neoregelia, Orthophytum, Portea, Puya, and Tillandsia. I love the bold, statuesque aechmeas, with their orange-yellow, strap-like foliage.

PHOTO: Bullis Bromeliads.

Bullis Bromeliads was part of our nursery tour.

PHOTO: Aechmea blanchetiana.

Aechmea blanchetiana

Our next stop was Signature Trees and Palms, and their fantastic collection of extraordinary tropical trees and very large stature palms. This is the nursery to go to if you need a 50-foot-tall specimen palm for your property! We found their beautiful red-leaf introduction of Heliconia spectabilis a possibility for our list.

The following day we focused on visiting the botanical gardens in the Miami area. In the morning we were met by Patrick Griffith, director of the Montgomery Botanical Center, which focuses on the conservation of threatened species of palms and cycads from around the world.

PHOTO: Montgomery Botanical Center.

Montgomery Botanical Center

Adjacent to Montgomery is the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Founded in 1938, its mission is to conserve the world’s diversity of tropical plants. Today, the mature plantings are diverse and are beautifully displayed around a series of lakes.

PHOTO: Heliconia spectabilis.

Heliconia spectabilis from Signature Trees and Palms

PHOTO: Flora in the Madagascar Garden.

Flora in the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s Madagascar Garden

In the afternoon, we met Ian Simpkins—who had helped us organize our tour—at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. This was the winter estate of James Deering, whose family founded Deering Harvester Company (which later became International Harvester Company). The house was built between 1914 and 1922, and is surrounded by elaborate subtropical gardens filled with amazing plantings of cacti, palms, and grasses.

PHOTO: Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Our research expedition finished with a few more exploratory visits to nurseries, including a trip highlight to the diverse and interesting Boynton Botanicals in Boynton Beach, Florida, and its extensive wholesale nursery of palms, elephant ears, begonias, succulents, and other tropical plants.

PHOTO: Begonia 'Bashful Bandit'.

Begonia ‘Bashful Bandit’

PHOTO: Medinilla 'Dolce Vita'.

Medinilla ‘Dolce Vita’

On the last day we traveled to Loxahatchee to visit Excelsa Gardens nursery, and while it was not planned, we literally “saved the best for last.” In addition to having an incredible variety of plants, the nursery offers many fantastic sizes of wonderful specimen-sized plants. In fact, we will reveal that we purchased two specimens of the white elephant palm, Kerriodoxa elegans—noted for its large, fan-shaped leaves with white undersides and black petioles—to display in the Heritage Garden in 2016.

We returned to Chicago with lists of hundreds of future plant prospects, as well as a multitude of design ideas that could be future “wows” for years to come! 

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

In November, I had the unique opportunity to go to the Portland Japanese Garden for a week-long training session—and what a week it was!

I arrived in Portland in early November, having endured scarily bumpy plane rides and torrential rains. The next day the sun came out and I started my weeklong training at the Portland Japanese Garden. I spent the first day cleaning up needles and leaves from the beautiful moss that carpets the whole garden. I have difficulty growing it here in my moss garden, but in Portland, one gardener told me that moss will start to grow if you sit still for ten  minutes. The tools I used to rake and clean were very efficient, but at the same time gentle on the moss.

PHOTO: Bamboo rake, broom, and winnow.

Bamboo rake, broom, and winnow

PHOTO: Clearing leaf litter promotes moss growth.

Leaf litter should be removed on a regular basis for healthy moss growth.

The next few days were all about pine pruning. We began with a Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii), a native of the rocky, windswept coastlines of Japan. One of the two pines species most popular in a Japanese garden, the black pine is symbolic of the seashore and referred to as on-matsu (the male pine), because of masculine qualities perceived in the branching and needles. Although considered a tough species, this pine has soil nematode and fungal disease problems. It prefers free-draining, acidic soil and full sun to grow well. As these requirements imply, the black pine is not very suitable for our region.

PHOTO: Japanese black pine before pruning.

Japanese black pine before pruning

PHOTO: Japanese black pine after pruning.

Notice how its shape is restored and more light can reach the inside and lower branches of the tree after pruning.

In contrast to the Japanese black pine, the Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) favors our climate and is the tree most commonly planted at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. I had a chance to prune one of the few Scots pines at the Portland Japanese Garden, and noticed how the environmental conditions affect growth patterns and the shape of a tree.

PHOTO: Pine pad in need of thinning and shaping.

The pad needs thinning and shaping.

PHOTO: After pruning, the pine pad has more air circulation and light penetration.

After pruning, the same pad has more air circulation and light penetration.

On my fourth day, I had the opportunity to learn how to build a bamboo fence with one of the expert gardeners. Fences and screens in Japanese gardens are primarily used to manipulate or block views, to form a perimeter, to partition garden areas, or to indicate a shift in garden elements, and to divide a garden into smaller thematic sections. The fence styles are numerous and diverse, utilizing almost exclusively natural materials: cut bamboo, wooden boards, and stones. Bamboo is by far the most popular choice of material due to its plentiful supply, texture, tonal qualities, and flexibility.

PHOTO: Building yotsume-gaki (tea garden fence).

Building yotsume-gaki, a tea garden fence

PHOTO: Tying ibo-musubi knots on the tea garden fence.

Vertical supports in place, it’s time to tie ibo-musubi knots in the time-honored way.

On my last day in Portland, I visited Lan Su Chinese Garden. In contrast to a Japanese Garden where the sanctity of nature is the defining principle, here terraces, doorways, and pavilions take precedence and frame vistas, while stone courtyards mark transition points between the architectural environment and nature.

PHOTO: Enclosed space at Portland Japanese Garden.

This garden gives a wonderful sense of enclosed outdoor space.

PHOTO: Japanese architecture in harmony with nature.

This skillful architecture testifies to the presence of mankind in nature.

Working alongside and learning from accomplished gardeners, visiting local gardens and nurseries, and exploring the city made my week in Portland so memorable. I can’t wait to go back and experience the same gardens in a different season!

Learn more about Japanese garden care that you may see in our own Garden, such as candling (done in spring and early summer), and willow pruning (a late fall/winter project). 

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The versatility of the willow in the landscape, its year-round ornamental appeal, and its adaptability to colder climates make it a staple and a highlight of the Garden’s plant collections. In fact, the Garden is committed to amassing and displaying one of the largest collections of willows in the country. This initiative was started informally more than two decades ago when Kris Jarantoski, the Garden’s executive vice president and director, began collecting willows from other institutions.

PHOTO: Willow tree at Dudley Point, at the Serpentine Bridge.

The Garden has 2.4 million plants, and specializes in the cultivation of a select few genera. These specialized collections will become collections of distinction, recognized nationally and internationally.

Willows have long been used by indigenous cultures worldwide. Ancient cultures used the willow as medicine (aspirin derives from salicylic acid—a component found in willow bark); as weaving material for baskets; and for creating shelter. These days, willows are used in furniture; as a material in cricket bats; and as an ornamental landscape plant.

PHOTO: Salix tarraconensis catkins in winter.

Shrub willows like this Salix tarraconensis are a highlight of the Garden’s specialized collections.

The willow genus (Salix) contains more than 400 species. Derived from the Celtic word sallis—sal ‘near’ and lis ‘water’—their genus name describes the ideal natural habitat of most willows. Despite a natural affinity for water, however, many members of this diverse genus are adaptable to various landscape conditions, including dry sites (once established). Most are native to the cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere, but a few species occur naturally in the Southern Hemisphere. (Australia does not have native willow species, although willows are cultivated there.) 

Developing a world-class collection of willows is a team effort

The process of developing a specialized collection involves much more than acquiring as many difference species and varieties as possible. It also involves ongoing research on these collections by Garden staff and others. But before that is possible, it is essential the collection is authenticated—just as an art museum would do with a painting it received.

PHOTO: A group of willow twigs shows a variety of color for the winter landscape.

Willow twigs are a colorful highlight of the winter landscape. Shown here are twigs from four varieties in the collection.

Willows are a complex and difficult group to accurately identify, and the Garden is currently in the process of verifying its holdings—a process that we believe will take nearly three years!

Emily Russell, assistant curator of woody plants, and Frank Balestri, research assistant at the Garden, work with our collaborators Michael Dodge, a willow enthusiast and owner of Vermont Willow Nursery, and Irina Belyaeva, Ph.D., taxonomist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Russell and Balestri and their teams of photo documentation and herbarium voucher staff and volunteers have devoted countless hours to the willow effort. Russell accompanies Dodge as he surveys the Garden’s collections during visits, and records new information as it becomes available. Balestri’s primary role has been to collect herbarium vouchers prepared by volunteers that will be shipped to Dr. Belyaeva early next year. As we near the end of year two, we are still very busy in these winter months as we continue to collect digital images and herbarium vouchers!  

PHOTO: Emily Russell and Michael Dodge looking at alpine Salix in the rock garden.

Emily Russell and Michael Dodge look at alpine Salix in the rock garden.

PHOTO: Frank Balestri examines a Salix herbarium voucher.

Frank Balestri examines a Salix herbarium voucher

While we continue this project over the coming months, we encourage you to visit the Garden and explore our Salix collection. Winter is a great time to explore the wonderful world of willows!

Learn about the ornamental value of Salix, the characteristics of shrub species, and their beauty in the winter landscape in the winter issue of Keep Growing.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and