“Saving the Wild South”: Preserving Biodiversity in the Midst of a Changing Environment

To learn about a plant species is to learn far more than the jagged edge of the leaf, the twist of the root, the diameter of the fruit. The study of botany is the study of plants, the animals and people who may eat them or use them — or more likely, destroy them — the study of invasive species, agriculture, climate change, history and the dogged, the charmed, the adventurous botanists who sought out trees, and plants, and blooms and berries. Georgann Eubanks’ Saving the Wild South is all of these things and more. Her lyrical prose, generous descriptions, deft hand with 19th-century botanists and their escapades, and, perhaps most importantly, her determined journey to see these plants and talk to those who are trying to preserve biodiversity in the wild South make this book revelatory, joyous and sobering.

Eubanks has structured the book around the endangered plant species that have the most interesting stories to tell. Even those readers who suffer from “plant blindness,” that affliction by which all plants present themselves as a blurry green backdrop, find the clarity needed to appreciate species like the Florida Torreya tree, the Miccosukee gooseberry and River Cane, by way of this book’s vivid descriptions, full-color photographs and compelling stories.

Saving the Wild South gives us the region’s past and present. Eubanks prefaces her exploration of the Torreya tree with a reflection on the outrageous roadside attractions of 1950s Florida. One notable locale, The Garden of Eden, presented the Torreya tree as an example of gopher wood, the wood of Noah’s apocryphal ark. Having been fit for the ark, supposedly, the wood of the Torreya tree was plundered over the centuries for shingles and fences, and during later industrial times it was burned to power steamboats. Notes Eubanks, “It’s tragic that Torreya taxifolia, one of the oldest remaining tree species on earth, was among the first to land on the federal list of endangered species, after having survived more than 175 million years.” She goes on to describe her involvement with the efforts to protect and sustain the Torreya tree, including the nurturing of tiny seedlings.

The Miccosukee gooseberry, Ribes echinellum, was not identified until 1924, and Eubanks cannot help but speculate about why that may have been. In light of how many itinerant botanists there were in Florida and South Carolina, the only two places where this family of Ribes is found, it’s amazing that no one identified it earlier. Eubanks provides a reverie of speculation — could the rarity of the Miccosukee be related to the extinct passenger pigeon or Carolina parakeet? It’s exhilarating to consider the narratives of the once prolific birds having anything to do with this plant; however, wildlife rangers doubt the connection. Her treatment of the plant is at once natural history and modern day ramble through the Florida swamps; both are fascinating and delightful.

Eubanks’ treatment of River Cane, Arundinaria gigantea, is enlightening. Indigenous communities in the Piedmont used River Cane for “hunting, fishing, tool making, and death rituals,” but when European settlers arrived, they cleared the cane so their livestock could graze. Cane was integral for six species of butterflies, and it was the nesting ground for wild turkeys, bears, small mammals and rattlesnakes. The eradication of canebrakes illustrates how swiftly Americans have destroyed ecosystems, affecting cultures and a multitude of species. However, Eubanks’ portrait of River Cane is not without hope and beauty. She shares a vignette about fishing with her grandfather Bomer using cane poles, and she introduces the reader to Ramona Lossie, a master weaver of river cane baskets, who is keeping the Cherokee tradition alive. The chapter concludes with Eubanks’ musing upon one of Lossie’s tiny River Cane baskets, noting that her own plant blindness is lifting through her research.

Even readers with no connection to the “Wild South” and its native plants will feel gratified by reading this book. Eubanks shows us that the study of plants is a multi-disciplinary pursuit as well as an adventure that is as thrilling today as it was in the 1800s, when itinerant collectors were botanizing throughout the region. Here’s to Saving the Wild South.

Saving the Wild South: The Fight for Native Plants on the Brink of Extinction
By Georgann Eubanks
University of North Carolina Press
Published October 19, 2021