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

We entered the twilight of our 2019 North America-China Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC) expedition in North Carolina, at the Southern Highlands Reserve in Lake Toxaway, NC, which focuses on conserving the flora of the Appalachians. We took a tour of their stunning arboretum, which is situated about 4,500 feet above sea level, and then hiked even higher to their natural area for collection.

Appalachian Mountains view with SHR staff members
Our crew enjoys the view of the Appalachian Mountains along with SHR staff members Kelly Holdbrooks (bottom left), Lauren Garcia-Chance (bottom right), Eric Kimbrel (top right), and Pepper the dog. Photo by Sean Halloran

We were joined in our collection by Lauren Garcia-Chance, Director of Research and Conservation, and Eric Kimbrel, Director of Horticulture, as well as Pepper the dog.

Pepper the dog at Southern Highlands Reserve
Pepper the dog works her way through the Southern Highlands Reserve. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

At around 4,800 feet we finally found some oak trees with a good number of acorns. Oaks (Quercus spp.), among other trees and shrubs, do not always produce abundant fruit every year. Instead, they produce large amounts of fruit, in this case acorns, during what are called “mast” years. There are many factors that influence whether a year is a mast year or not, but regardless, it did not seem to be a mast year for oaks in Kentucky and Tennessee and we hadn’t found many acorns.

Fortunately for us, the higher elevations at SHR seemed to have helped the oaks produce more acorns, so we were able to collect from a group of trees we eventually identified as Quercus falcata, or the southern red oak.

Angela Magnan and Sean Halloran study red oak
Angela Magnan and Sean Halloran use a hand lens and a flora of the Appalachians to key out a branch of southern red oak. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

In all, we made six collections at SHR and had a wonderful visit with their staff. That evening, we took advantage of the beautiful weather and our AirBnb’s lakeside location to kayak in Lake Cherokee before cleaning seeds and sorting through vouchers.

Andrew Gapinski and Kang Wang canoe on Lake Cherokee
Andrew Gapinski and Kang Wang paddle off into the sunset in Lake Cherokee, South Carolina. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

The next morning we had an open day on our schedule, so we backtracked an hour or two to collect in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia. We drove through forest roads and hiked along the Chattooga River Trail to add six more collections. At the Holcomb Creek Falls, we found a beautiful patch of what we thought was white turtlehead, Chelone glabra. Though beautiful, this flower wasn’t on our desiderata (target taxa list), so we just admired it and continued on.

white turtlehead in Chatthoochee National Forest
White turtlehead (Chelone glabra, we think) growing in Chattahoochee National Forest. Photo by Jared Rubinstein
Andrew Gapinski at Holcomb Creek Falls
Andrew takes a break at the Holcomb Creek Falls in Chattahoochee National Forest. Photo by Sean Halloran

Our next collection day brought us to another National Forest—this time we headed to Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, accompanied by Forest Botanist Matt Bushman and Lauren Garcia-Chance from the Southern Highlands Reserve.

Crew at Nantahala National Forest in NC
Matt Bushman (left of the sign) and the crew at Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. Photo by Lauren Garcia-Chance

Matt brought us to a boulder field on a very steep hill up from Jake Branch, a creek in the National Forest, where we found some great examples of yellowwood (Cladastris kentuckea), but none bore fruit.

Sean passes yellowwood leaf to Xinfen
Sean passes a leaf of yellowwood (Cladastris kentuckea) to Xinfen for further examination. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

On the way down to the car, we stumbled upon a not-so-happy rattlesnake (our first of the trip!) whose rattle warned us to give it a wide berth.

rattlesnake at Nantahala National Forest
A rattlesnake gives us the stink eye for disturbing its nap in Nantahala National Forest. Photo by Tao Deng

Next, we headed to the Buck Creek Serpentine Barrens, a stunning spot in the national forest where twenty-two of North Carolina’s rare or endangered plants are endemic. Among our favorites were the kidney-leaved grass of Parnassus (Parnassia renifolium) and the fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinata).

Parnassus growing at Nantahala
A field of Parnassus in the serpentine barrens at Nantahala National Forest. Photo by Tao Deng
Close up of parnassus flowers
A closer look at the beautiful parnassus flowers in Nantahala. Photo by Tao Deng
close up of petal variation in parnassus
A closeup of the unique venation of the petals of Parnassus in Nantahala National Forest. Photo by Kang Wang
fringed gentian flower bud
A closed flower bud of fringed gentian. Photo by Tao Deng
open flower of gentian at Nantahala
An open fringed gentian flower in Nantahala. Photo by Tao Deng

Nantahala was one of the highlights of the trip for us—it had a wonderful diversity of species and truly amazing endemic plants. We made ten more collections, and Matt’s botanical knowledge was completely invaluable.

Finally, our last day of collecting arrived, and we headed into Cherokee National Forest for what we hoped would be a fateful and successful ultimate day. Our primary goal for the day was to find seed of Buckleya distichophylla, a rare, hemiparasitic plant that attaches its roots to those of other plants to gain nutrients. I’d heard some unconfirmed rumors from various botanists in Tennessee that we might find some near Watauga Lake, so we drove that way and started hiking. Buckelya seems to prefer, though doesn’t require, parasitizing the roots of hemlock, so we were pleased to see some Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana) growing along the shores of the man-made lake. It was devastating, however, to see the damage incurred by the hemlock wooly adelgid and elongate scale, which have been ravaging hemlock populations throughout eastern North America.

dead and dying hemlocks at Lake Watauga
Dead and dying hemlocks (in brown) along the shores of Lake Watauga in Cherokee National Forest. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

Despite the hemlock decline, we ended up discovering a HUGE patch of Buckleya growing among the remaining hemlock, and many of them were in fruit. Though not a terribly impressive looking plant, Buckleya’s hemiparasitic nature and the fact that it is the Arboretum’s oldest collected plant at present made us especially excited to find more.

Buckleya in fruit at Cherokee National Forest
Buckleya in fruit at Cherokee National Forest. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

We also managed to find some roses and dogwoods growing along the shore, helping Xinfen round out her survey of the area’s Rosaceous plants.

Xinfen Gao finds another rose
Xinfen Gao rejoices at another rose! Photo by Jared Rubinstein

From Lake Watauga we drove up, up, and up to the top of Roan Mountain, where we straddled the North Carolina-Tennessee Border by hiking a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Along the way, we stumbled upon a familiar name on a historic plaque.

Asa Gray commemorative sign
Tao Deng points out an historic plaque commemorating Harvard’s own Asa Gray and his explorations of Appalachia in the 1840s. Photo by Kang Wang

We arrived at a trailhead to the more than 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail, and were quickly shrouded in fog and kept in the dark by a thick canopy of firs and spruces.

NACPEC team at Roan Mountain
NACPEC 2019 North America Collection Expedition team (minus Sean Halloran, photographer) at the mile marker for the Appalachian Trail atop Roan Mountain. Photo by Sean Halloran
Fog and evergreen trees on the Appalachian Trail
Fog and evergreen trees keep us cool on the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

While hiking the trail, we made our final collections of dogwood, mountain ash, and alder. We finally had a chance to use our drop cloth for the dogwood, which we shook to make the delicate fruits fall in a more controlled manner. Afterwards, we could pick up the seeds from the cloth.

Xinfen and Kang gather dogwood fruits
Xinfen and Kang gather dogwood fruits that they’ve shaken to the ground. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

In addition to collecting seeds and herbarium vouchers, one of the most important aspects of our collection trip was note taking. For most of the trip, Sean was in charge of recording all kinds of data about each collection, including a plant’s coordinates, the other associated plant species, the number of plants we collected from, and other descriptive information about the plant and site.

Sean uses a portable note-taking desk
Sean uses his handy “connect-a-desk” as a portable note-taking desk. Photo by Jared Rubinstein

These data will be invaluable when we get back to the Arboretum and begin sorting and accessioning our collections into our database.

Sean records associated plant species at Cherokee National Forest
Sean records associated plant species, with the help of his own notes and our digital floras at Cherokee National Forest. Photo by Kang Wang
Collection notebook with Smilax lasioneura fruits
Our collection notebook, with fields in both English and Chinese, along with the fruits of Smilax lasioneura. Photo by Sean Halloran

We ended our last day of collecting with a beautiful Alnus viridis, the green alder, which only grows in the Southeast atop Roan Mountain. It was collection number 99, but due to a record keeping error, we had actually made a total of 100 collections throughout our several weeks of collection.

Fruits of green alder
Fruits of Alnus viridis, or green alder, found on the Appalachian Trail atop Roan Mountain. Photo by Kang Wang

Our days of collections were over, but the trip was not yet complete. After one more night’s sleep in North Carolina, we drove north to Washington, DC for the final leg of our trip.

Read the next story in this series of blog posts.