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 fourth transmission; see the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth parts.

After we left Kentucky, the six members of the 2019 North America China Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC) expedition headed to Chattanooga, TN. We got to enjoy some of the city’s attractions, including a beautiful former railway turned into a park. It was nice to have a day of rest (albeit driving rest) after our first few days of collecting.

NACPEC colleagues in Tennesee
Five of the six members of our 2019 NACPEC trip, minus Sean Halloran, photographer.

For our first day of collecting in Tennessee, we headed to the Tennessee River Gorge Trust just outside of town along the Tennessee River. The TRGT manages 17,000 acres along the river, and graciously guided us through their properties. We collected our first ash tree (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), as well as the always lovely beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).

Xinfen, Kang, and Jared collect green ash
Xinfen, Kang, and I pull the seeds off a branch of green ash, Fraxinus pennsylvanica. Photo by Sean Halloran.
Callicarpa americana
Callicarpa americana, or beautyberry, at the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. Photo by Tao Deng

The TRGT’s executive director and Tennessee native Rick Huffines, along with staff members Angie Langevin and Eliot Berz, taught us a bit of what Rick called “hillbilly nomenclature,” or the local common names for the plants we were collecting, such as Quercus nigra subspecies hillbillyensis, or the hillbilly oak.

Another important component of our collections included taking herbarium vouchers of each plant we collected. Herbarium vouchers are dried and pressed leaf, twig, and fruit samples that help botanists and scientists identify plants, and also serve as a record of where plants grow throughout the world. For our collection trip, we took four herbarium vouchers of each plant we collected. One will go to the Arnold Arboretum’s herbarium, one to the herbarium at the U.S. National Arboretum, which houses vouchers from all NACPEC trips, and the remaining two will go to the herbaria at the Chengdu Institute of Biology and the Kunming Institute of Botany, managed by Xinfen and Tao, respectively.

We used paper, cardboard, foam, and a field press to gather samples in the field.

Emily and Jared press herbarium samples
Emily Ellingson and I add leaves, twigs, and acorns of chinkapin oak (Q. muehlenbergii) to the field press. Photo by Sean Halloran.
Carrying field presses into the Tennesse River Gorge Trust
Andrew and I lug the field presses around the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. Photo by Sean Halloran

Each night, we’d transfer the pressed samples from the field press into a wooden herbarium press that we’d strap tight.

Sean Halloran arranges vouchers at the hotel
Sean demonstrates how a hotel bed can make an excellent work station to arrange and press herbarium vouchers. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

As the leaves dry out, we’d change the paper and continue tightening the straps, ensuring a flattened, dry sample. When we get back to the Arnold, we’ll put all the samples into the freezer for at least two weeks before sending them away to ensure any pests or insects embedded within are neutralized.

Herbarium press after the first day of collecting
Our herbarium press after the first day of collecting. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

After five collections at the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, we headed west to the Walls of Jericho Natural Area. The Walls of Jericho is one of the only places in the state where bracted arrowwood (Viburnum bracteatum) is endemic. We hoped to find it in fruit, and were fortunate to meet Nate Parrish, a graduate student at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga whose research is on the flora of the Walls of Jericho. Nate agreed to guide us into the natural area, and led us through a grueling ten mile hike in 90-degree weather down to the banks of Turkey Creek where the viburnum grows. We were also assisted by Thomas Murphy, a graduate student at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, who knew his native southeastern plants like the back of his hand!

Turkey Creek expedition
Thomas Murphy (Austin Peay State University), Andrew Gapinski, and Nate Parrish (University of Tennessee, Chattanooga) are happy to reach Turkey Creek after an arduous hike.
Team at the Walls of Jericho
A sweaty day in the Walls of Jericho. Photo by Sean Halloran

We spotted our first viburnum pretty easily once we reached the creek bed, but all the fruits had been eaten by animals or had blown away. As we continued to hike down the creek we saw the viburnum everywhere, but none had any fruit. Finally, after about an hour, we heard a shout from Andrew, who had found a plant with three fruits remaining. We quickly bagged them before a bird could swoop in and eat them, and also took several cuttings of young stems. These we hope to propagate back at the Arnold.

Viburnum bracteatum leaves
Leaves of Viburnum bracteatum found in the Walls of Jericho Natural Area, Tennessee. Photo by Kang Wang
Viburnum bracteatum fruits
The three lone fruits of Viburnum bracteatum found at the Walls of Jericho. Photo by Kang Wang

After a long, hot hike back, we discovered that a water main had burst in Chattanooga, and the city was out of water. No showers for us that night!

The next morning, still without running water, we packed up and drove south to Georgia. We arrived at the Lula Lake Land Trust, an absolutely stunning property along Rock Creek in the Chattanooga Valley.

The falls at Lula Lake Land Trust in northern Georgia
The falls at Lula Lake Land Trust in northern Georgia. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

We were fortunate to meet with Max Medley, a former botany professor who’d helped develop a flora of Lula Lake over the last several decades, and who led us to several interesting plants in the land trust.

Thomas Murphy and Max Medley at Lula Lake
Thomas Murphy (left) and Max Medley (right) botanize at Lula Lake Land Trust. Photo by Sean Halloran

To round out of group, we were excited to have none other than Ned Friedman, director of the Arnold Arboretum, join us for collecting!

Ned Friedman and collecting team at Lula Lake
Ned Friedman (center) joins us for collecting and lovely views at Lula Lake Land Trust. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

Ned, formerly on the faculty of the University of Georgia, helped us make fourteen collections, including root cuttings of the winged elm, Ulmus alatus, a particular favorite of his.

Ned Friedman digs Ulmus alata
Ned digs up roots of the winged elm, Ulmus alata, at Lula Lake Land Trust. Photo by Kang Wang
winged elm branch
The ‘winged’ branches of the winged elm, Ulmus alata. Photo by Kang Wang

We also got a master class from Tao Deng in preparing herbarium vouchers from challenging samples, as with the Quercus marilandica, or blackjack oak, we found at Lula Lake.

Tao Deng prepares herbarium sample
Tao Deng shows Ned Friedman and the rest of us how its done. Photo by Jared Rubinstein
Ned presses Quercus marilandica
Xinfen guides Ned and Kang in their pressing of Quercus marilandica. Photo by Sean Halloran

Lula Lake was so incredible that we decided to come back the next day. Fortunately for all of us, the city water in Chattanooga came back on in the morning, and we all enjoyed much needed showers. We headed back to Lula Lake without Ned, Thomas, or Max, but joined by our seventh official collection team member, Angela Magnan of the U.S. National Arboretum.

Angela Magnan joins the Expedition at Lula Lake
Angela Magnan (second from right) joins the expedition for the return to Lula Lake. Photo by Sean Halloran.

This time around, we hiked down into the waterfall and made five more collections, including from an ash tree (Fraxinus americana var. biltmoreana) precariously perched over a cliff.

Biltmore ash at Lula Lake
A Biltmore ash (Fraxinus americana var. biltmoreana) at Lula Lake makes for a challenging collection. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

After convincing Kang not to shimmy his way out onto the branch, we a combination of our pole pruners and our home-made 40’ telescoping pole to access some of the tree’s many seeds.

Kang on ash branch
Kang decides not to crawl over a cliff on the tree…
Andrew and Kang collect ash with pole pruners
…and instead joins Andrew with the pole pruners. Photos by Jared Rubinstein

Georgia and Tennessee had treated us very well, helping us get to 66 total collections, but it was time to move on to the Carolinas for the last few days of collecting. Special thanks to the staff at the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the Lula Lake Land Trust staff, Thomas Murphy, Nate Parrish, and Max Medley for their assistance.

Read the next story in this series of blog posts.