For more years than any one knows, male and female plants of dwarf sumac, one of Georgia's rarest plants, had been separated by miles of roads and civilization.
Never very abundant, the plant with the scientific name of Rhus michauxii had dwindled to just two populations sometime in the 20th century — a small group of females in Newton County, and a lonely group of males in the Broad River Management Area on a bluff overlooking the Broad River.
The plants are able to keep going by reproducing clonally — a dead-end reproductive strategy in the long run, explained Mincy Moffett, a botanist with the state Department of Natural Resources' nongame conservation section. When plants reproduce by cloning themselves, the offspring lack genetic diversity, an important evolutionary defense if they encounter changing conditions or a new disease, for example.
But in February 2010, just in time for Valentine's Day, botanists working with the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance reunited the long-lost lovers, tenderly planting about 20 female plants near the males in Elbert County.
The plants were cuttings from Newton County sumacs, raised at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which has for years been tending its own captive collection of Rhus michauxii.
Moffett, Jenny Cruse-Sanders, the Atlanta Botanical Garden's director of conservation and research, and Shirley Berry of Athens' State Botanical Garden of Georgia put the shoots in the ground, not too far from the male plants.
The botanists have also been managing the site to return it to a more natural state.
After suppressing invasive species with prescribed fire, native grasses, shrubs and wildflowers are returning to the site, Moffett observed.
And the male shoots, which once numbered only about five, have rebounded to about 150.
"We're seeing some success," Cruse-Sanders said.
Last week, Moffett and Cruse-Sanders revisited the site with a crew from the Atlanta Zoo's horticulture department, another participant in the matchmaking experiment.
They first gathered the possible proof of what could be the first time in more than a century the males and females had exchanged genetic material, at least in Georgia. The states of Virginia and North Carolina also have small populations of dwarf sumac, but the plant is still so rare that it is on the federal list of endangered species.
Liese Der Vartanian of Athens, a volunteer who acts as a guardian for the site, had spotted flowers, then fruit on one of the female plants this summer. This week, Moffett carefully removed the cluster of about 50 or 60 little red fruits, then handed them to Cruse-Sanders, who took them back to Atlanta, hoping the fruits contain seeds. If they turn out to have seeds, she will try to grow new plants from some of them; others she will turn over to researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, who will try to raise dwarf sumac seeds in tissue cultures.
Once the botanists gathered the fruit, they set about on the second purpose of their trip — clearing out saplings of sweet gums that were growing up around the sumacs.
They didn't just cut down the saplings. The Zoo Atlanta workers systematically stripped off the sweet gum leaves and packed them into plastic bags. They'll take those bags back to the zoo and freeze them. Later, zoo workers will feed the leaves as "browse" to small African primates such as ring-tailed lemurs, colobus monkeys and drills (similar to baboons), explained Danielle Green, curator of the zoo's horticulture department.
Browse is an important part of the primates' diets, Green said. Zoo staffers actually use it to train the monkeys to do things like turning their bodies in a certain way to zookeepers. That way, Green explained, a veterinarian can treat a wound or take an ultrasound image without having to anesthetize the primates, often a dangerous procedure to a wild animal.