Staff from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and colleagues from the North America-China Plant Exploration Consortium are embarking this fall on a plant collecting trip in the Appalachian Mountains region, the conservation partnership’s first expedition in North America in its 30-year history. Our intrepid explorers—Head of Horticulture Andrew Gapinski, Propagator Sean Halloran, and Living Collections Fellow Jared Rubinstein—are sharing their experiences in the field through a series of blogposts. This is their first transmission; see the first, second, fourth, fifth, and sixth parts.

Our 2019 collection trip in Appalachia began in earnest with our first true day of collecting in southern Ohio at the Edge of Appalachia Nature Preserve, a beautiful 20,000 acre site on the western flank the Appalachian Mountains managed by the Nature Conservancy and the Cincinnati Museum.

NACPEC Applachian Expedition members (left to right) Sean Halloran, Xinfen Gao, Jared Rubinstein, Tao Deng, Andrew Gapinski, Kang Wang. Photo by Greg Payton.

We were joined by Greg Payton, Director of Living Collections at the Dawes Arboretum in Newark, OH and guided by Chris Bedel, the preserve’s director.

Edge of Appalachia Preserve System
Edge of Appalachia Preserve System. Photo by Sean Halloran
Chris Bedel, preserve director at the Edge of Appalachia
Chris Bedel, preserve director at the Edge of Appalachia, shows us a video of a caterpillar feeding that he took using a microscope! Photo by Sean Halloran

We finally had the chance to put on all of our insect repelling gear (lone star ticks were swarming at the Edge of Appalachia Nature Preserve) and headed out to the Lucy Braun Lynx Prairie Preserve, where we made our first collection of Magnolia acuminata, the cucumber magnolia.

Seeds and fruits from our first collection, Magnolia acuminata
Seeds and fruits from our first collection, Magnolia acuminata. Photo Kang Wang

The seeds we collected from the magnolia—and all the plants on the trip—will eventually be shared with the Beijing Botanic Garden, the Arnold Arboretum, and the other members of the North America China Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC), as well as with the National Germplasm Repository in Washington, DC.

To collect seeds off of high branches, we brought along a 40’ telescoping pole designed to measure utility lines to which we attached a hand sickle. We could then stand under a tree and telescope the pole out until we could hook the sickle over the branch and pull. Ideally, the branch would be cut by the sharp knife and the seeds would fall to the ground.

Kang Wang attempts to cut down a branch full of acorns
Kang Wang attempts to cut down a branch full of acorns, while Sean Halloran measures the trunk’s DBH (diameter at breast height). Photo by Jared Rubinstein

We made eleven collections at the Edge of Appalachia, including scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), and dwarf hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia). We were particularly excited to find the hackberry, as the existing dwarf hackberries at the arboretum are in decline. All in all, an excellent first day!

The fruit of a dwarf hackberry
The fruit of a dwarf hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia). Photo by Kang Wang

The next morning we drove down to Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, and met up with Emily Ellingson, Curator and Native Plant Collections Manager at The Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky (and a former colleague of mine from the University of Minnesota!) and Rob Paratley, Curator of the University of Kentucky Herbarium.

Creating a plan for exploring the Daniel Boone National Forest
Emily Ellingson (far left) and Rob Paratley (second from right) lay out a plan for exploring the Daniel Boone National Forest. Photo by Sean Halloran

Rob and Emily expertly helped guide us through the National Forest to find and collect two more magnolia species (M. tripetala and M. macrophylla), a redbud (Cercis canadensis), and a sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) that required us to use logs and rocks to ford the Red River. Xinfen studies the pea family (Fabaceae) and the rose family (Rosaceae), so she was particularly excited to find the redbud.

Xinfen examines seed pods for viability
Xinfen examines the seed pods of a redbud tree (Cercis canadensis) to make sure the seeds are viable. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

Our day included a delicious lunch at Miguel’s Pizza, a favorite for climbers and other visitors to Daniel Boone, and a visit to an amazing group of eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) growing along a huge boulder.

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) at Daniel Boone National Forest along the Whittleton Branch Trail. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

That night (and every night thereafter), we returned to our Airbnb to begin cleaning and sorting the seeds we’d collected. Lighting was particularly dim, so headlights were required! Once the seeds were clean, we counted and bagged them before eventually shipping them back to the Dana Greenhouse at the Arboretum.

Andrew, Xinfen, and Kang remove seeds from fruits
Andrew, Xinfen, and Kang pull seeds out of fruits from the day’s collection, lit by their headlamps. Photo by Jared Rubinstein
The ‘fruits’ of our labor
The ‘fruits’ of our labor after day a few days of collecting. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

The following day we headed to the Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. The college accepts students from around Appalachia and is tuition-free! It was also one of the first co-educational and racially integrated colleges in the country.

Berea College Forestry Outreach Center
Berea College Forestry Outreach Center. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

The Berea College Forestry Department manages 8,000 acres of forest, and granted us permission to explore and collect throughout. Guided by Glen Dandeneau, Assistant Forester and the rest of the staff, we hiked to the top of the Indian Fort Mountain Trail and made eight collections, including several species of rose, much to Xinfen’s delight, and chestnut oak (Q. coccinea). We also found one of the southernmost pockets of big tooth aspen (Populus grandidentata) and dug up root cuttings for propagation at the Dana Greenhouses.

Mapping the expedition at Berea College Forest
The staff of the Berea College Forest, along with Emily Ellingson and our collecting team check out a map of where we’ve been so far. Photo by Sean Halloran

Along the trail we also spotted a grove of pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which form a mango-like fruit. Rather than wait to the scoop the seeds out of the fruit that evening, Kang decided to “clean” the seeds using a more culinary exciting technique.

Kang extracts Pawpaw seeds
Kang extracts Pawpaw seeds by eating the fruit and spitting out the seeds. Photos by Jared Rubinstein
whole fruits and the seeds of Pawpaw
Whole fruits and the seeds of Pawpaw. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

We ended the day with a hike along the West Fork Silver Creek and made several more collections.

West Fork Silver Creek at the Berea College Forest
West Fork Silver Creek at the Berea College Forest. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

We spent our last day in Kentucky collecting at Floracliff Nature Sanctuary with Beverly James, the sanctuary’s director, and Josie Miller, stewardship director. Floracliff protects 346 acres in the Kentucky River Palisades, and contains more limestone soils than the previous sites we’d visited so we were able to make a few more collections there. We found our first hickory (Carya tomentosa) in fruit!

Identifying native herbaceous ground cover
Beverly James (left) and Jose Miller (right) help identify native herbaceous ground cover. Photo by Sean Halloran

After cleaning and sorting seeds, we said goodbye to Kentucky with a quick stop at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and headed south to Tennessee. Our guides and local experts were so helpful, and were extremely grateful to have made 35 collections with their help!

popcorn chicken sampling at KFC
Andrew forces the rest of the group to try popcorn chicken at a KFC that’s actually in Kentucky. Photo by Jared Rubinstein
One more stop in Kentucky
Opinions are mixed. Photo by Sean Halloran

Read the next story in this series of blog posts.