‘Free plants’ sign leads to magnolia mix-up at Smith College Lyman Conservatory

Last modified: Thursday, November 13, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Students and staff at the Smith College Lyman Conservatory were relieved to learn Wednesday that the disappearance of a flat of rare plants was the result of a mix-up, not a theft.

The plants, which had been missing at least since Friday, were back in the conservatory Wednesday, said manager Rob Nicholson.

They are young sweetbay magnolia trees, propagated from cuttings that he and interns collected in 2013 from the only population of the trees in New England. They plan to use the roughly 20 young trees to create a kind of back-up population of sweetbay magnolia, which could then be planted on campus or propagated to add to the current population in Gloucester.

When Nicholson returned from a conference Monday morning and realized that half of the plants were missing, he was devastated at the impact it would have on the conservation and research project.

But when he broke the news about the missing plants to one of the interns Wednesday afternoon, she told him she thought she had seen the plants in her on-campus house.

It turned out, he said, that students had mistakenly thought they were available because someone had put up a “free plants” sign referring to some chrysanthemums that were near the magnolia.

“She just came back with three of them in her hands,” a relieved Nicholson said Wednesday afternoon.

His assistant, Steve Sojkowski, had noticed the plants were missing Friday, but assumed they were among the many that Nicholson took to his conference for botanical garden managers in Washington, D.C.

When Nicholson returned to work Monday, he thought the plants had been stolen. He said the theft of rare plants is “an epidemic” that botanical garden managers are all too familiar with. The main reason? The Internet. “It’s a really easy venue to get rid of stolen stuff,” he said.

But the part that did not make sense was that while sweetbay magnolia trees are extremely rare in New England, they are all too common in Southern states. “You could get these at any nursery,” he said.

“For New England, it’s probably the rarest tree,” he said. He and his interns hiked into a swamp in Ravenswood Park in Gloucester to clip stem tips from the only population of sweetbay magnolia in the region.

The Trustees of Reservations who run the park had to erect an 8-foot-high fence around the copse of trees to protect them from deer. They like to eat the seedlings and scratch their antlers on the mature trees, leaving cuts that are vulnerable to fungus, Nicholson said.

The sweetbay magnolia plants — now safe in the conservatory — are about 16 months old. To clone the stem tip cuttings, the interns painted them with a hormone that causes them to develop roots and, in about two months, grow like a typical plant.

They will be ready to plant outside in about two years. Nicholson said two locations he is considering planting them are MacLeish Field Station in Whately and behind the president’s house on campus.

But hungry deer have thwarted previous efforts to grow new populations of sweetbay magnolia in Massachusetts. “That may happen to us,” Nicholson admitted.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.


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