Hannah Nelms isn’t sure she’s discovered something brand-new in botanical research, but she’s pretty sure she’s the first to put it on paper.
While pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Nelms discovered a method of propagating wild American plum trees by taking cuttings—small stems from a tree’s trunk—and getting them to root in greenhouses.
Other experiments may have done the same thing, but she couldn’t find any research records to prove it.
“They just didn’t write it down,” said Nelms, who received a master’s in May. She earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from UTC in May 2020.
Nelms worked on the project with Dr. Hill Craddock, UC Foundation Robert M. Davenport Professor in the Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science.
Wild American plums grow south from Rhode Island to northern Florida and west to the eastern edges of Montana and Wyoming.
They aren’t the species that produce plums sold in grocery stores; it’s easy to propagate those trees, said Nelms, who grew up in Cookeville, Tennessee.
“We know all about those plums. We know how to root those plums,” she said.
American plum trees produce smaller fruits that don’t appeal to shoppers, so not as much attention has been paid to propagating them, she said.
“People may not even know they exist, but animals do,” Nelms said. “The animals eat them. It’s used for shelter by animals, too.”
In her research, she found only one fully documented study that addressed the rooting of American plum trees, but it was done on “stock” plants already being grown in greenhouses.
“What I did that was different from any study that had been done on American plum was take them from the wild and propagate them in the greenhouse,” she said.
Scott Schlarbaum is director of the University of Tennessee Tree Improvement Program, created in 1959 “to improve the productivity and health of Tennessee forested lands in a changing climate, through the planting of high quality, locally adapted and genetically improved seedlings,” according to the program’s website.
Schlarbaum said the work done by Nelms and Craddock is essential to creating seed orchards for American plum trees.
“These eventual plum orchards and other future plum orchards wouldn’t have been possible without Hannah’s and Dr. Craddock’s propagation research,” Schlarbaum said.
“We didn’t know how to propagate plums by rooted cuttings, but they solved that problem, plus generated a lot of clones for planting.”
Uses of forests in Tennessee include wood production, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation and environmental contributions to water and atmospheric quality.
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