Tennessee Tech University students have discovered a rare plant species in a wooded area surrounding the Appalachian Center for Craft, Tech’s satellite campus in Smithville. The plant is called the Cumberland pagoda-plant (Blephilia woffordii) and is a species new to science, first described in 2020 by Aaron Floden, Ph.D., and Ed Schilling, Ph.D. The plant is so rare that there are only four other known populations surrounding the Caney Fork River area.
Students participating in the field botany summer intersession course spent four days hiking the trails around the Center for Craft when they stumbled upon this rare plant species.
“This discovery of a new location for a very recently described species is significant. That new collection would be the furthest east it gets. It highlights the importance of the Central Basin and the Eastern Highland Rims with respect to the level of plant diversity and endemism,” Floden said.
During the student’s last day of collecting plants around the trails, they had to detour off a path due to a large fallen oak tree. As they maneuvered around the hole the fallen tree left behind, Blephilia woffordii stood out because of its bright white flowers. Tech student Emmalee Higdon collected it to deposit in the Hollister Herbarium, Tech’s museum that houses nearly 40,000 plant specimens for scientific study.
“Each time a new site for a rare plant is found, we learn a little more about where to search in the future. We know that Cumberland pagoda-plant likes limestone rock outcrops, but we are still learning how much sunlight it needs and how much is too much,” Todd Crabtree, State Botanist with the Tennessee Natural Heritage Program, said.
“I am very proud of the students in this class. They worked hard during these surveys to collect many important specimens and even to identify them. Their positive and inquisitive attitudes made it possible for us to cover as much ground as we did. We were also fortunate to have the support of Dr. Kimberly Winkle in the use of the Center for Craft property and classrooms for our work,” Tech associate professor of biology Shawn Krosnick said.
The new specimen of Blephilia woffordii will soon be digitized as part of the curation process at the Hollister Herbarium, making it available for other scientists to study online through the Southeastern Regional Network of Expertise and Collections (SERNEC; www.sernecportal.org).