Tim Boland and Elizabeth Thomas find a stand of silky stewartia, resilient and vulnerable, amid the cul-de-sacs of an unbuilt suburb.

Somewhere in the panhandle of Florida, traveling for miles within a labyrinth of perfectly paved yet utterly empty roads, we blindly followed our guide, Bob, to a population of our target species, cracking jokes as we drove about the sinister fate awaiting us. We were in the ghost of a ghost town: the skeleton of a subdivision that was never built, planned for a population that never came. Every street is identical, save for the occasional cul-de-sac jutting into scrubby second-growth forest. Not only did the people never arrive, but the houses were never constructed; hundreds of miles of paved roads were laid here in the 1990s, only to be left abandoned, another suburban dystopia created by Florida’s rich history of speculative development.

Bob pulled his Prius to the side of the road, and we parked behind him. We’d been put in touch with Bob, a local resident and active amateur botanist, by our contact in the Florida Forest Service; it had been Bob who discovered this population of Stewartia malacodendron, and he was eager to share it with trustworthy enthusiasts. Known commonly as “silky stewartia” or “silky camellia” due to its showy, camellia-like blooms, S. malacodendron is a small deciduous understory tree native to the southeastern coastal plain of the United States, from Virginia to the northeast and Texas to the southwest. Traveling from the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha’s Vineyard in the late summer of 2021, we had come to harvest fruits (and thus, seed) of this species to grow into plants for our ex-situ living collections. As co-holders of the Plant Collection Network’s National Collection of the genus Stewartia with the Arnold Arboretum, we were hoping to collect from populations at the southernmost edge of its range, heretofore unrepresented in our living collections.

Grabbing our gear, we ambled through the woody goldenrod and beautyberry, enjoying the fresh light of an early September morning pouring through the sparse canopy of southern magnolia and live oak. We were only about 100 feet from the road when we stumbled across our first stewartia tree, standing like a sentinel at the rim of a large, sunny slope dropping down to a sinkhole pond. Our satisfaction to find it fruiting quickly turned to excitement and then overwhelm as we spotted at least a dozen more of them spread across the face of the slope, each one dripping with plump, green fruits larger than we had ever seen before. Normally about an inch in diameter, these were more akin to fuzzy ping pong balls or small crabapples. Balancing on the scrubby slope and madly scribbling collection numbers on sandwich bags, we exchanged involuntary expletives as we took in the superlative bounty of fruits. Were we harvesting germplasm, or were we apple picking?

Of conservation concern throughout most of its range, silky camellia is a protected endangered species in the state of Florida. Protected in theory, at least: as we began to stuff the plump green fruits into plastic bags, we gazed across the sinkhole, where a collage of zig-zagging tire tracks defaced the far slope all the way down to the shore of the pond. With its bleached, eroded sands, this local party spot is visible even from satellite images.

Liz heard Bob holler from somewhere upslope to her left. Though she couldn’t make out what he was saying, she knew he’d found yet another group of exceptionally fecund trees. This good news found her in a fluster of multitasking, as she scrambled to capture location coordinates on our GPS unit, measure and record specimen data and collection numbers by hand in our field book, label baggies and herbarium samples, take pictures, and collect fruit. Sharpie cap in mouth and hair sticking to her sweaty forehead, she wondered whether we’d be late to our next stop that morning, meeting our next guide at a site about three hours west. We’d expected this to be a quick roadside stop, not an absolute windfall.

This expedition is our most focused effort to collect this species since an Alabama excursion in 2007. Our founder, Polly Hill, was among the first private collectors to grow this plant, with our oldest tree dating back to 1962. The mild maritime climate and acidic soils of Martha’s Vineyard happily support the cultivation of this stunning, small, flowering tree.

Most of our expedition planning is done months ahead to arrange for a seasoned naturalist or professional botanist to lead us to target species. Admittedly, we get into some very wild places to collect the silky stewartia. Usually, we find them after rugged hikes into deep wilderness. Yet here on this fine morning, just off an intersection crossroad, we had found the most robust population of silky stewartia Tim has witnessed in 15 years of pursuing it. Slicing into the globose fruits, we found dark brown sclerified seeds that shone brightly in the late morning light.

Somehow, this spectacular hillside of trees was spared the backhoe and bulldozer—for now.

This unexpected and surreal discovery was a vivid reminder that plants are both resilient and vulnerable. The silky stewartia is imperiled by habitat destruction, principally through logging or building development. On a previous scouting trip to Alabama in 2012, we bore witness to a new condominium development that destroyed a former thriving population. Somehow, this spectacular hillside of trees was spared the backhoe and bulldozer—for now. With the same luck that brought us to this unique population of trees, we hope to return and see them in bloom someday. Perhaps the flower size will also be larger, or some of the petals streaked ruby red, as variants in the wild are known to do?

We looked at our watches to check our time; not surprisingly, we would be late to our next destination. However, the place, the trees, and the experience were worth it. As we gathered up our gear to move onto our next location, we did so in a suspended state of stewartia euphoria. The remainder of the trip was both productive and satisfying, but nothing would compare to this remarkable discovery in the unlikeliest of places.

Timothy M. Boland and Elizabeth Thomas are Executive Director and Plant Recorder at the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury, Massachusetts.

From “free” to “friend”…

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