Linnaea borealis, found—then lost

Linnaea borealis, found—then lost

The year 1934 – when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established – was a dark year for Tennessee botanists. The gloom was due not to the creation of the park, which provided a permanent home for thousands of species of wild plants, but to the fire at the University of Tennessee that destroyed one of the state’s best herbariums. The UT collection, housed at Morrill Hall, contained more than 30,000 specimens, including many unusual plants collected in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Yet this dark cloud had one silver lining. Dr. A.J. Sharp, a world-renowned botanist and UT professor (as well as former GSMA Board Member Emeritus), rallied his botanist troops and called for the creation of a new, improved UT herbarium. Botanists all across the country responded by collecting new specimens and donating plants from existing collections. One of the latter specimens was a plant collected by Albert Ruth on August 13, 1892, and labeled, somewhat vaguely, Mitchellarepens[partridgeberry] collected in “Sevier County—in mountain woods.”

When Dr. Sharp looked at this particular specimen, his jaw dropped. Not because partridgeberry is uncommon (it is extremely common along sunny trail sides), but because the plant had obviously been mislabeled. Sharp was looking at Linnaeaborealis(twinflower), one of the most delicate and beautiful flowers of the far north woods.

Linnaea borealis was not only named for the grandfather of modern botany and taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, it was apparently one of the Swede’s favorite plants. He had an image of the twinflower embroidered on the lapel of his dress coat. In portrait paintings, Linnaeus is sometimes depicted holding a twinflower.

Sharp hypothesized that Ruth, a long-time superintendent of schools in Knoxville and dedicated botanist who had collected over 10,000 plant specimens, had discovered the twinflower in Sevier County “mountain woods,” but mislabeled it Mitchella repens.

Although the twinflower is a denizen of Greenland, Scandinavia, and Alaska, Dr. Sharp believed it just might find a niche in the Smokies high country, in the vicinity of other ice age relicts like heart-leaved paper birch, wood-sorrel and mountain avens. However, the twinflower had never been reported in either North Carolina or Tennessee before the Ruth specimen. Nor since.

Therein lies the mystery of the Smokies’ twinflower. Was the Ruth specimen simply mislabeled? Did it become extirpated from the Smokies during the 20thcentury? Does it grow in a rugged, remote place that few people have visited?

“I think it was in the Smokies and still is in the Smokies,” says Dr. Peter White, co-author of Wildflowers of the Smokies and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In fact, Dr. White has organized two expeditions of fearless botanists who unsuccessfully searched the higher elevations of Sevier County in pursuit of the twinflower.

White thought a lot about Ruth, and the Great Smoky Mountains in 1892, when planning the hunts. He considered that access to the high country was limited back then. He concluded that the upper reaches of Porters Creek in Greenbrier and the old road to Indian Gap would be good places to start. He zeroed in on upper Porters Creek and the north slope of Charlies Bunion, where groves of heart-leaved paper birch were discovered in the 1970s. White described both his 2006 and 2008 expeditions as “SPECTACULAR failures.”

For anyone who may have caught the twinflower bug, White describes the perfect habitat in the Smokies as cool, damp, steep, north-facing talus slopes above elevations of 5,500 feet. Twinflower would likely bloom in the Smokies from late June through July. If you are extremely physically fit and lucky and do find the lost species in the Smokies, White cautions: “DO NOT COLLECT IT.” Take a picture and a GPS point and report it to the National Park Service.

White also recommends that anyone daring (or foolhardy) enough to join the hunt in the Smokies high country should have “excellent rock climbing experience and a great life insurance policy.”

As they say, ‘a word to the wise should be sufficient.’