Atlanta Botanical Garden opens Southeastern Center for Conservation this summer

Flowers from Sarracenia purpurea, commonly known as the purple pitcher plant, are seen in a bog in North Georgia on Monday, May 13, 2019. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Flowers from Sarracenia purpurea, commonly known as the purple pitcher plant, are seen in a bog in North Georgia on Monday, May 13, 2019. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

For miles we bounced in and out of ruts and puddles, winding and climbing through North Georgia along Forest Service roads, venturing into the great green nowhere that is the Chattahoochee National Forest, suddenly to emerge into high altitude sunlight and a grassy clearing.

Waiting for us in the mountain meadow was a crew of horticulturalists, wildlife biologists, and enthusiastic hobbyists. They carried weed-eaters, loppers and chain saws.

We hiked down a slope, underneath pines and poplars, over ground covered with blueberry and huckleberry plants. The volunteers looked like a modern-day version of those angry villagers from Frankenstein movies, bearing tools of destruction, bent on violence.

They were after a monster, a fleshy, bog-dwelling mutant that drowns insects and feeds off their bodies.

But these villagers admire this carnivorous killer, called Sarracenia purpurea montana. Their mission was to give it more sunlight, more water and more love.

Emily Coffey, vice president in charge of conservation at the Atlanta Botanical Garden brushed back a tendril of curly red hair and explained that this soggy ground hosts the last wild population of the purple pitcher plant in the state of Georgia.

Coffey and her colleagues have been caring for this small population for more than 20 years, pruning back the mountain laurel and other woody shrubs, opening up the canopy, taking down hardwoods that suck up too much of the water supply.

Their efforts are paying off, and the purple pitcher plant is thriving up here. “There were only seventeen plants in the 1990s,” she said, over the whine of the gas-powered tools. “Now there are four hundred.”

Taylor Ouderkirk, 28, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife technician, works to clear brush in a bog in North Georgia. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Saving one flower at a time

Forces of destruction are loose in the world. The Center for Biological Diversity wrote that up to 5,000 plants and animals are going extinct every year. A special report from the United Nations released last month estimates up to a million species could be extinct in the next few years, as a result of deforestation, overfishing, development, and other human activities.

Fighting against that tide is the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

The 30-acre Midtown attraction is best-known for its riotous flowers, holiday light shows, monumental topiary and musical performances.

But the Atlanta Botanical Garden has also, for decades, marshaled its resources to save and propagate rare species such as the purple pitcher plant, the Torreya conifer, along with 200 other endangered plants.

The garden dedicates a 10-member staff, state-of-art laboratories and $1.2 million a year to pursue projects in the North Georgia mountains, in the South Georgia swamps, the Florida panhandle, Puerto Rico, Ecuador and other locales.

Emily Coffey, vice president of conservation at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, helps install a game camera at a bog in North Georgia to keep track of invasive feral hogs. The hogs pose a danger to  the last wild population of purple pitcher plants in Georgia. (Casey Sykes, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

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This summer the garden opens its Southeastern Center for Conservation, a $7 million two-story building adjacent to the Fuqua Orchid Center. It was funded through the successful $53 million Nourish and Flourish fundraising campaign, which included $40 million for capital improvements and $13 million for the endowment.

The new center will serve as a home for the garden’s conservation, education, and experimentation. The building includes a 3,800-square-foot research facility with a molecular lab that lets scientists examine genetic material at the nucleotide level. The cold-storage seed bank is augmented by cryogenic coolers that can preserve the embryos of the Torreya trees as they try to determine why the trees die in the wild before they can become adults.

The garden works hard to preserve plants native to Georgia but also sends its experts elsewhere when natural disaster brings a plant population to the brink of death. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed the habitats of certain orchids and carnivorous plants in Puerto Rico, the garden sent conservators to the island to help gather wild seed, with the goal of propagating and returning the plants to the island.

Rashaad Tillery, 29, a conservation horticulturalist, works to clear away weeds and dead leaves from pitcher plants inside a nursery at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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They’re trying to do the same thing in South Florida where four species of orchids were wiped out by poachers and developers. Their team found the same species still growing in Cuba. They hope, through a collaborative program with Cuban partners, to propagate those plants and bring some back to Florida. (This, unfortunately, involves wading through swamps full of alligators and cottonmouth snakes.)

MORE: Atlanta Botanical Garden's 'Alice' is a story told in plants

The challenges

Bruce Roberts of Hiawassee is an engineer, retired from Lockheed, where he worked on the F-22. These days he volunteers with the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance to help protect these threatened populations.

Up here on this Rabun County bog, Roberts, clad in a bush hat and long pants, helps clear brush and also takes photographs of the purple pitcher plants, his boots disappearing into the squishy ground.

Growing directly out of the water, the purple pitcher plant features clusters of squat green pouches, veined with purple lines, filled with rainwater. From the midst of those pouches, a single slender stem arises, 12 inches or more, crowned with a purple flower like an upside-down umbrella.

In the 1990s the Atlanta Botanical Garden tried to preserve a population similar to this one on a piece of private land elsewhere in North Georgia and came back one spring to see that every single plant had been poached. "People are sorry," said Roberts, shaking his head.

Those who have organized this outing are concerned that the same thing might happen in this mountain bog. Volunteers sign agreements not to reveal its location or even its name.

Seth Scott, 19, a student at North Georgia Tech in Clarksville, is serving as an intern and is up to his ankles in mud. “I’ve lived in Georgia my entire life, and I didn’t know there was a bog up here,” he said.

While state wildlife biologist David Vinson chainsawed laurel and rhododendron, he tried to avoid other plants that are also rare. These include a deciduous dwarf mountain laurel, Kalmia carolina. “This is the only place it grows in Georgia,” said Carrie Radcliffe, database manager with the Atlanta Botanical Garden and a founding member of the Mountain Bog Project.

Collateral damage is hard to avoid. Near the edge of the bog is a tiny rare orchid, Cleistesiopsis bifaria. Radcliffe took care to mark it off with red tape. Later in the afternoon, Coffey looked down to see the orchid had been trampled into the ground.

“It happens,” she said.

Carly Evans, 23, a graduate assistant with the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens, shows her horticultural affinities with her tattoo of a green pitcher plant. She was among those working recently to help preserve the wild population of the purple pitcher plant in North Georgia. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Other bigger, clumsier animals also pose a threat. On the way out of the bog, we passed a corral of hog wire, with a gate and a trigger. It is used to trap the 200-pound feral hogs that have laid waste to crops and swampy areas like this bog. The hogs wallow in the water on hot days, but they can destroy years of work. Said Radcliffe, “I have cried numerous times in bogs. At one point I felt really hopeless about it.”

“They’re all over the south,” said Mary Pat Matheson, president and CEO of the garden. “If it’s not climate change, it’s going to be wild hogs.”

As the new structure rises at the Botanical Garden, Jason Ligon and Sarah Carter work in the nearby nursery, hand-pollinating Asian slipper orchids, and repotting young plants.

They also feel the pain when a natural disaster spoils plans. The garden had transplanted 700 Torreya trees to Torreya State Park in Florida, with noted Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, 88, as a guest of honor. Then, Hurricane Michael destroyed the entire stand, dumping hardwoods on top of little saplings.

“It can be really discouraging,” said Carter. But even if they’re not successful now, they retain hope for future prospects, she said. “One thing we’re doing is keeping individual genetic material alive,” said Carter. “In the future, we hope there is something to be learned from holding on to these plants.”