By Keith Clay
The trailing arbutus is an unassuming plant that has been entangled with Indiana University history for more than 100 years. From botanical explorations by faculty and students in the 1800s to co-ed adventures at Arbutus Hill at the turn of the century and 21st-century conservation efforts at IU's new Research and Teaching Preserve, the trailing arbutus is part of Indiana University's past, present, and future.
Botanically, the plant is a member of the blueberry family, which is uncommon in these parts, and is confined in Indiana to the Dunes region and a few south-central counties, primarily Monroe and Morgan. Mike Homoya of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources says there may be no more than 20 or 30 locations in the whole state where the trailing arbutus is found, and it does not exist further to the west. Around Bloomington, the trailing arbutus is rare but not impossible to find. Like elusive morel mushrooms, which appear at the same time of year, the spring-blooming trailing arbutus has very definite habitat preferences. It likes to grow on the edges of steep, southwestern-facing slopes in association with painted sedge and partridge-berry. Its scientific name, Epigaea repens, means lying flat on the ground, but it often cascades over the edges of bluffs.
Scientific research on the trailing arbutus at IU dates back to William Blatchley, a graduate student in the 1880s, who studied the local flora of Monroe County and reported the trailing arbutus from several sites. Around the same time, botany professor Anton Boisen thoroughly mapped the local distribution of the plant, providing a valuable record to which we can compare modern-day populations. Boisen later lobbied President Herman B Wells to have land supporting the trailing arbutus protected. According to former botany professor Paul Weatherwax, there were numerous attempts to transplant the arbutus to campus, all without success. In 1983, IU trustee Clarence Long indicated a desire to see IU's official flower, and President John Ryan assigned Professor Charlie Hagen "the responsibility of searching out a trailing arbutus in the wilds and inform us where we might go and gaze thereon … it's got to be the trailing arbutus." Most recently, Roger Beckman (now the head of the Life Sciences Library), working with Professor Don Whitehead, did his master's thesis in biology on factors limiting the distribution of the arbutus. It is safe to say that few plants have received so much attention from Indiana University.
The scent of the arbutus blossom is described as being intoxicating and even arousing. Thus perhaps the popularity of Arbutus Hill to IU students a century ago, where the trailing arbutus occurred in such abundance as to perfume the air with its scent. This favorite destination of past generations of students led to naming the yearbook The Arbutus and to the plant's designation as IU's official flower. The plant has left its stamp in other ways, such as Arbutus Street and Arbutus Baptist Church in Bloomington, the Arbutus Society at the IU Foundation, and the design of the IU President's Medal.
I have always had an interest in the trailing arbutus, so I was thrilled to find it earlier this year at the new Research and Teaching Preserve at Moore's Creek. When I was a PhD student in botany at Duke University in the early 1980s, two of my first scientific publications were on the biology of trailing arbutus. This was admittedly old-fashioned stuff, more along the naturalist traditions of John Bartram or Andre Michaux than the cutting-edge molecular biology that dominates research at IU today.
Before my wife and I were married we visited Hanging Rock State Park, N.C. It was a beautiful place, full of storybook rock formations and rushing streams, and a profusion of plant diversity. We came across some trailing arbutus plants with ripe fruits being visited by a steady stream of ants. The fruits consisted of gelatinous masses embedded with hundreds of tiny seeds. As ants carried globs of jelly back to their nests, they inadvertently carried away the seeds. A little library research later revealed that this phenomenon had never been observed, so I wrote a short paper in just two or three hours, describing ant dispersal of trailing arbutus seeds. Today's literature on trailing arbutus generally mentions this finding. I enjoy the fact that this tiny tidbit of scientific knowledge arose from a pleasant stroll in the park.
Today, few people associated with IU are familiar with the trailing arbutus. Local trailing arbutus populations, including the one at Moore's Creek, appear to be in a state of decline. Nothing now exists that resembles the early descriptions of Arbutus Hill. I believe that habitat changes and forest regrowth are endangering the long-term prospects for local survival of IU's official flower. Ironically, disturbances like logging, fire, or windstorms, which open up the habitat and reduce canopy cover, may be the best thing for the trailing arbutus. There may be no more than 30 or 40 plants hanging on at Moore's Creek, with similar numbers at other sites. We face the dilemma of doing nothing and having the population decline even further, or risking habitat manipulation that could backfire. We hope research at the preserve will generate knowledge to ensure the persistence of the trailing arbutus for future generations of IU students and alumni.
Keith Clay is a professor of biology and director of the Research and Teaching Preserve.
The Indiana University Foundation has founded the Arbutus Conservation Fund to help protect the trailing arbutus and to support research and teaching efforts at the Moore's Creek Preserve. Contact the preserve office at (812) 855-8742 or visit their Web site (www.indiana.edu/~preserve) for more information.