They may not be fighting off monsters or denying hundreds of would-be suitors, but two small populations of northeast Georgia plants are living out their own version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyessy this Valentines season.
Unfamiliar with these classic stories? In a nutshell, Odysseus and Penelope fell in love and were separated by ten years of war and then an additional ten years of trials as Odysseus struggled to return to his love. During Odysseus’ long 20 year absence, Penelope staved off 108 suitors, faithfully waiting for her true love to come to her. He fought off monsters and beautiful sirens to make it back home to her. Together they conquered time, distance, and the elements.
The dwarf sumac (Rhus michauxii), as the name suggests, is a small inconspicuous plant you may not notice if not looking for it. An interesting feature about these fuzzy little fellows is that they are dioecious. This means that male and female flowers are on separate plants, so every individual plant is either a male or female. Successful fruiting and seed production require the presence of both male and female plants.
Dwarf sumac is a federally endangered species and is known currently from only three states (Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia). In Georgia, the species has dwindled to just two populations (Newton County and Elbert County) separated by more than 75 miles. Even more tragically, the Newton County population is all female, while the Elbert County population is all male.
The lonely population of male plants has clung to existence at the Broad River Wildlife Management Area, waiting patiently for many decades, much like Penelope of Homerian fame, for love to find its way. On a hill far away near Covington, a population of females wonders where true love awaits. Will they ever get together?
Now with a little help from cooperative efforts between The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Nongame Conservation Section, The State Botanical Garden and The Atlanta Botanical Garden, the two populations will finally have the introduction they have been so patiently waiting for.
On Feb. 12, a dedicated group will outplant approx. 25 female plants at the formerly all-male Broad River WMA site. Led by Dr. Mincy Moffett, botanist/plant ecologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and Dr. Jenny Cruse-Sanders, director of conservation and research at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, these efforts will augment previous efforts initiated by Heather Alley of the State Botanical Garden last year.
Writes Alley, "On a brisk damp day this past November, two devoted volunteers from the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, Elaine Nash and Liese DerVertenian, planted 30 female stems alongside the existing Broad River males. We wanted to get our group of males planted while the ground was still warm, to determine the best time to couple the long separated girls and boys”.
Moffett, with the help of GPCA volunteers, will keep a close eye on the love birds, or in this case, plants, over the next several years. Perhaps with a little TLC these few fuzzy green plants will become a robust population blessed with an abundance of offspring, bringing this very rare plant back from the brink.
Truly a love worth waiting for.