When Hazel Wetzstein holds a tiny Georgia plume plant, she's not just tending a future shrub. She's keeping a native species from becoming extinct.
"Georgia plume is one of the rarest native shrubs or small trees in Georgia," said Wetzstein, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "It's currently known to exist only in about three dozen locations in 19 counties."
Many of these plants are growing on unprotected property, she said. What makes the shrub even more rare is the fact that Georgia is the only place in the world where the plant can be found.
First discovered by William Bartram in 1773, the plant is so rare in nature that no wild populations were known from about 1875 until it was rediscovered in 1901.
Today, Georgia plume faces the added challenges of habitat loss due to forest cutting, agricultural land conversion and urbanization.
But those are just some of its issues. It also "appears to suffer from reproductive problems," Wetzstein said. "Seed set is low or nonexistent. Seedlings have not been found in the wild, indicating serious consequences in the future."
Georgia plume doesn't propagate well using conventional cutting methods. To date, Wetzstein has produced 400 new plants using the tissue culture method.
"Using tissue culture, we grow small pieces of plant tissues in culture media under sterile conditions," she said. "By incorporating hormones, vitamins and nutrients into the media, we can induce the development of new plant shoots."
In the summer, Georgia plume is topped with white plume-like flower clusters that give it its name. Each year, the flowers become harder to find as plant numbers decline, at least outdoors. But now that UGA researchers have successfully grown the plant in greenhouses, they're testing the Georgia plume in the fresh air of its native habitat.
This fall, Wetzstein, her lab staff, Master Gardeners, college students and collaborators Martha Joiner and Carolyn Altman at the Georgia Southern Botanical Garden and Gail Lutowski at the Warnell Forest Education Center planted tissue- culture-regenerated Georgia plume plants in Statesboro and Effingham County.
They used different types of treatments such as organic matter and fertilizer on the plants. And they outlined the plots with rebar and draped netting to keep the deer out. They're trying to see what methods work the best for maximum survival and growth. In a few months, they'll return to southeast Georgia for a spring planting.
Besides trying to reestablish Georgia plume in the wild, Wetzstein is also gathering samples from plume populations in the state to establish in culture in her laboratory. If the Georgia plume plant becomes extinct, the genetic material will be preserved in Wetzstein's laboratory in Athens.
"We're using this as a safeguarding method," she said.