UT Plant Scientists Reveal List of Influential Florae

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Whether walking through fields of high cotton or “sangin’ in the hills,” Tennesseans know plants are the state’s lifeblood. Two experts with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture recently led a project choosing the 10 plants that most shaped the state: American chestnut, beans (several varieties), corn, cotton, dogwood, ginseng, grasses (prairie and turf), tobacco, white oak, and, of course, kudzu.

The order of the list is incidental. While monetary value or cost came into play, the project weighed other factors as well, including each selection’s historical influence on the state. Here are a few of the reasons each plant was chosen:

• American chestnut: It’s been nearly a century since a fungus eradicated this king of the forest, but the widespread and majestic tree was so valued for timber and wildlife that though gone, it still stands out in the state’s culture and history.

• Beans (several varieties): Snap beans, pole beans, soybeans…several varieties of beans are endemic to Tennessee history. From pioneer days to this day, bean crops have been important to farmers, home gardeners and the state’s food industry.

• Corn: West Tennesseans view corn mainly as an agronomic centerpiece, but in East Tennessee the plant conjures up images of grits and cornpone that were dietary staples. All across the state it’s associated with legal and historically illegal distillery operations.

• Cotton: More than 300,000 acres of our state are devoted to cotton production yearly. As a fiber, cotton is used in virtually every type of clothing. As a food, its seed is crushed for oil and meal that is used to feed livestock and for human food products.

• Dogwood: Found naturally across many Tennessee counties, dogwood, is among the state’s favorite trees. Many festivals celebrate its spring blooms. In nursery production, which centers in Middle Tennessee, our state ranks first in dogwood production.

• Ginseng: This native herbaceous perennial plant has been harvested and used or sold for hundreds of years. It is entwined in the history of eastern Tennessee and our deciduous forests.

• Grasses (prairie and turf): Tennessee was once a complicated and diverse mosaic of many different types of plant communities which included forest and some of the most diverse prairie systems on the planet. Bison once roamed these prairies. As for turfgrasses, everyone knows they have become an integral part of our lives. Our lawns and playgrounds are covered with them. The estimated acreage of turfgrass in Tennessee is somewhere north of 1 million acres.

• Tobacco: Though its recent history is clouded, tobacco was one of the earliest crops planted by settlers in Tennessee and has shaped the state’s economy and health since Tennessee joined the Union.

• White oak: As long as there has been people in Tennessee, they have been relying on white oaks for survival and income. We use it to build our houses and it graces our hearths as fuel on cold winter nights.

• Kudzu: Easily recognizable by almost anyone in Tennessee, kudzu is among the invasive plant species that damage our natural environment.

Natalie Bumgarner and Andy Pulte of the Department of Plant Sciences at the UT Institute of Agriculture spent much of 2018 developing the list. More than 600 nominations were submitted, and submissions were open to the public. Together with a panel of other UTIA experts in a range of fields, all the nominations were weighed, and each nomination’s significance was carefully considered to develop the final list of 10 plants that most shaped the history of the state.

Pulte reflects on the process. “Every plant on this list is important. Some of them I could have guessed. However, there were a few surprises that could not be ignored, especially with the number of Tennesseans who nominated them.”

Each nomination was evaluated within the context of its contributions to the state’s history and economy, and its value to society spiritually or culturally, or its uses in the landscape or as a food. The pair intend to use the project to influence future curricula for elementary schools and other initiatives. “For those in agriculture, it is easy to have a singular perspective about plants, but when the list is considered, impacts are incredibly extensive,” Bumgarner explains. “There is a selection on the list for those interested in plant sciences, ornamental horticulture, forestry and wildlife, environmental studies, natural resource economics, and so much more.”

Pulte adds, “People see more plants than any other organism in their lifetime. Plants have the ability to influence you in a variety of ways: mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Bringing an awareness to a sort of plant-blindness is at the heart of this project.”

The influence of particular plants has varied with societal changes. Bumgarner continues, “Some plants that were lucrative for agricultural producers may not be important anymore and vice versa. For example, a relative newcomer on the agricultural scene in Tennessee, soybeans entered into wide-scale production only in the past half century or so. Today soybeans thrive in Tennessee fields and the crop is among the state’s most valuable commodities.”

Because the list had to be balanced, both beneficial and negative aspects of nominated plants were considered. Bumgarner comments, “We did look at popular row crops, but there are invasive plants on the list, and some with complex or negative aspects of their histories.”

The project broadened from an exploration of Tennessee life to cultivating an appreciation of nature. Pulte expounds, “Every one of the plants on the list has shaped the lives of those who call this state home. Plants do make it possible for us to live here on Earth. Even the air we breathe is made possible because of plants.”

You can find photos and detailed descriptions of the 10 plants online at tiny.utk.edu/TN10Plants.

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Through its mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. ag.tennessee.edu.