When my wife and I were looking at property just over a decade ago we'd had our share of city and suburb living and were ready to relocate into the country. We looked at numerous properties in the surrounding counties and eventually settled on several acres of wooded, mountain land quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Not everybody's cup of tea, I get it, but it was exactly what we were looking for.
We moved in during early November and spent the winter wondering what kinds of plants, animals, and other organisms we would find living here come the spring. We started cataloging some of the birds a mammals a little that winter but most of the plants had to wait until the spring when the property would truly come alive.
We knew that the property was great wildflower habitat, so we figured we'd have some interesting species, but we could never have predicted what was about to happen.
Sometime in the late spring of 2011 my wife came in from mowing the yard, and when she walked through the door she was more than a little excited. "I found a trillium!" she said.
"Where?" I asked.
"Down near the pond." She was excited. We'd been hoping to find some but had, to that point, not found anything on our walks.
"What kind is it?"
"I have no idea. It's not blooming." Well, that was a bummer. Here she had my interest piqued and then she dropped that bomb. Thanks a lot.
"It's probably a little late in the year," I said. "We'll just have to check it next year to look at it again."
So that's what we did. A year passed and we put the flower out of our minds. No use pondering over one thing when there's so much more to explore, but by the next spring, we were ready.
We took a walk to see if we could find it, and it didn't take too long before she had it in her sights. "Well, I see it, but I have no idea what it is," she said.
"Tell me about it," I said.
As she was describing it I realized it didn't sound like any trillium I had ever encountered before. While I was in college, I had taken several field botany classes and knew most of the trillium around here, but this one was odd. She didn't remember seeing anything like it either. So there was nothing to do but snap a few photos, go back to the house, and start researching.
So, we had a trillium, which was cool. The only problem was that we had no clue what kind it was.
When we got back to the house we pulled out every flower field guide, plant book, and app that we had access to. Marci even went back and tried to key out the plant using two different flora (specialized books for accurate identification of plant species) but had no luck figuring out what she was looking at. She finally got desperate and ended up googling the flower description.
To no avail.
The closest thing we could come up with was the yellow form of the Lanceleaf Trillium, but it hadn't been reported to be in our area, and what we were looking at was not all yellow, so we weren't sure what to think. You see, if a plant hasn't been reported to be within a few hundred miles of where you're looking, you probably haven't discovered something cool. You're probably on the wrong track.
"You need to send your pictures to a botanist and get the correct identification if you can't figure out what it is," I told her.
"Maybe," she said, with her nose still stuck in a book. She's the type who will do her darndest to figure it out on her own before she'll ask for help, and she wasn't ready to admit defeat.
So she went back through the reference guides again, determined to find it. It had to be in one of them somewhere. I suggested again that she find someone else to ask, and it was with unimaginable reluctance that she finally agreed to compose a couple of emails.
The first one was to the Tennessee Native Plant Society. The second was to a botanist at the University of Tennessee. This was a Sunday so we had to wait to hear back.
We got an email from one of the directors of the TNPS a couple days later and he confirmed that it did look a little like Trillium lancifolium but there were some aspects that looked a little atypical for the species. He asked some questions about the habitat and asked for more photos, which we provided.
We didn't hear anything from the university, but in their defense, I imagine they get a lot of random emails asking for help with identification of relatively mundane plants, and they have other things they have to do.
The TNPS got a botanist who was an expert on southeastern Trillium species involved. His name was Tom Patrick. And after a thrilling email exchange between us and several other botanists over the course of a couple more days, Tom confirmed that it looked like it could possibly be a new species. He told us about another new species of Trillium that had recently been found in a small, isolated population along the Wateree River in South Carolina. He said our plant looked a little like this Wateree Trillium but the morphology of the two didn't match. By that time, we had found about 20 plants near the initial one, so we were super excited that we might have something special since the experts were still puzzled.
Well, after an authority of that caliber weighed in, I guess the folks at the University of Tennessee figured out we weren't completely off our rockers, and two botanists from there were out on our property five days after the initial email was sent. They came out to collect DNA samples, and while here, did more exploring of the property than we'd been able to do up to that point. They ended up finding hundreds of plants farther on down the side of the mountain from our initial 20 plant discovery.
We couldn't believe our ears. We had even more? How was that possible? Later, when we had a chance to walk a little more of the property, we saw what he was right. We certainly had more plants than we initially thought. We still didn't know what we had but we were excited because the experts had not yet been able to make a conclusive identification.
Twelve days after the initial email we sent out, we had the first batch of DNA sequencing back, and it indicated that we may have a new species on our hands. It took a while to go through all the DNA analyses, but they were finally able to confirm that our little flower that we stumbled on quite accidentally was, in fact, a new species. We were over the moon.
The discovery was written up in a scientific journal and a couple of other regional publications picked up the story. There was some discussion about calling it Dunaway's Trillium but neither my wife nor myself are that full of ourselves so we settled on the name Tennessee Trillium (Trillium Tennessense).
It was immediately recommended to be placed on the Tennessee rare species list and is considered to be a rare and endangered species as of this writing. Other searches have been conducted and the plant is isolated to this part of the Bays Mountain range. There have been a few other small populations found, but, unfortunately at least two of those have been destroyed. One of the biggest areas was cleared for a horse ranch, and Trillium don't grow in open fields around here, so that population is no more.
In the ten years since all of this has occurred, we've become the stewards of this little species. Not only is it rare and endangered but we have the largest population that's been found to date. We have also been fortunate to meet some amazing people who were involved in the identification of the plant and it's recognition as a new species.
We've been honored to play host to dozens of native plant enthusiasts from as far away as Germany as they have toured the property to photograph our little plant. Over time, everyone who was involved in the identification was finally able to come out and see it. It took Tom Patrick, the Trillium expert who was so instrumental in getting the ball rolling, a couple of years to find the time to visit during the brief flowering period, but he was finally able to make it. Unfortunately, he died a few years after we had the chance to meet him. We were grateful that he had the opportunity to see it before he died.
In the years since, we've had a few groups of people who knew Tom that have asked us if he was able to see the flower before he died, and they've been very pleased when we told them he did.
This year, the 10th anniversary of the discovery, the very last of the people who was instrumental in our initial identification was finally able to come out a few days ago to see the plant for the first time. Fortunately, the plants are still in full bloom right now, even though it's a little late in the year for them to still be blooming in those numbers as the peak usually occurs in April.
In truth, the way it all went down is pretty amazing. The only reason we settled where we are is because it was close to where we worked but not too far away to be a burden for the family to come visit. And then I think of all the properties we looked at when we were getting ready to buy and remember that we almost pulled out of the sale of this one before it went through. I realize that we could have very easily ended up somewhere else and it is likely that no one without a biology background would have ever known this plant existed.
All I can say at this point is that I feel very fortunate we chose this particular tract of land in this little area of the state on the day we did. It's almost like the little plant was waiting on us to find it, and now that we have, we're looking into a life trust to make sure nothing ever happens to our little botanical treasure so that it is protected long after we're gone. We've found some other neat stuff over the years, like an unnaturally high number of Purple Finches and Box Turtles, both of which are in serious decline in their geographical ranges. We've also discovered that we have Synchronous Fireflies and Tennessee Marble on the property. So all in all, we have come to understand that we bought a pretty cool piece of property, but even with all that, nothing we've found comes quite close to the discovery of a new species: the Tennessee Trillium. You can find links to read more about the plant below. Until next time.
Madbird Biologist - Mark A. Dunaway
I am a wildlife biologist and nature recording expert who is passionate about our planet and the species we share it with. I am an advocate for conservation and enjoy educating others about the plants and animals around us. Tag along with me as I document what I'm up do or talk about things I think others may be interested in. Thanks for joining me on this journey into the natural world.