Off the beaten path: Alarka Institute leads quest for rare mountain flower

For even the most woods-savvy of plant lovers, a blooming mountain camellia is a rare to non-existent sight.

A member of the tea family, it’s picky about its habitat, easily susceptible to drought and fire, and reticent to reproduce. All that adds up to a tenuous existence in scattered, isolated populations through the Southern Appalachians. To find a mountain camellia, you’ve got to know where to go and what to look for, and be willing to tromp through the backcountry until you see it.

Don’t fertilize it, because the roots can’t take it. If growing in a pot, drainage is key, but definitely don’t let it get dry. After planting a seed, give it up to six years to germinate, and don’t expect a flower until the 10-year mark. It’s safe to say mountain camellia is a finicky plant.

Yet somehow, mountain camellias persist in the wild — and that’s more than can be said for its cousin, the Franklinia alatamaha. Renowned botanist William Bartram discovered the Franklinia in a 2-acre area along the banks of the Altamaha River in Southeastern Georgia during a 1765 expedition, collecting seeds during a return trip in 1773. The tree was never found growing anywhere else, and while it’s been grown in cultivation ever since Bartram delivered the seeds to Philadelphia, it’s been extinct in the wild since 1803.

The mountain variety is rare enough that Johnston has mostly mapped out where individual shrubs are present in the wild. And the Alarka Institute group was going to get to see some of those plants firsthand.

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