SMITHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Tech University students have discovered a plant species so rare that it is still new to science — first described in 2020. The plant is called the Cumberland pagoda-plant, scientific name Blephilia woffordii.
Only four other known populations of the plant have been discovered, surrounding the Caney Fork River area. The first scientists to describe it were Aaron Floden, Ph.D. and Ed Schilling, Ph.D.
Students participating in a field botany summer intercession course made the fateful discovery during a four-day hiking event around the Appalachian Center for Craft.
On the last day of collecting plants around the trails, a large fallen oak tree resulted in the students taking a necessary detour off of their path. Maneuvering around the hole left behind by the fallen tree led to the discovery of the bright white flowers of the Blephilia woffordii.
“This discovery of a new location for a very recently described species is significant. That new collection would be the furthest east it gets. It highlights the importance of the Central Basin and the Eastern Highland Rims with respect to the level of plant diversity and endemism,” Floden said.
Tech student Emmalee Higdon collected the specimen to deposit in the university's museum, the Hollister Herbarium, a structure that houses nearly 40,000 plant specimens for scientific study.
“Each time a new site for a rare plant is found, we learn a little more about where to search in the future. We know that Cumberland pagoda-plant likes limestone rock outcrops, but we are still learning how much sunlight it needs and how much is too much,” Todd Crabtree, State Botanist with the Tennessee Natural Heritage Program, said.
“I am very proud of the students in this class. They worked hard during these surveys to collect many important specimens and even to identify them. Their positive and inquisitive attitudes made it possible for us to cover as much ground as we did. We were also fortunate to have the support of Dr. Kimberly Winkle in the use of the Center for Craft property and classrooms for our work,” Tech associate professor of biology Shawn Krosnick said.