One of the perks to working in a state park atop the second highest mountain in Arkansas is the commute. At the beginning of each day, while others fight city traffic, I traverse fourteen miles of Scenic Byway that most people only see while on vacation from their jobs. Then, at the end of each shift at Queen Wilhelmina State Park, I get to do it again. While driving, I rubberneck, constantly on the lookout for a plant that is new. After years of doing this, I recognize almost all of my vegetative acquaintances. But I still keep looking. You just never know.
One day in 2002, I spotted something a little different. At first I almost dismissed it as a trick of the light, but I marked the spot mentally and kept looking on each trip up, then each trip down. Finally curiosity got the better of me and I stopped at the vista nearby and walked back into the narrow "S" curves where I kept spotting this strange little tree. There it was, just over there, in the ditch by the culvert. It was nearly hidden by other small trees and vines so I pushed them aside and got a good close look.
The sapling had the form and growth habit of a tree that is very common in this part of Arkansas, but the coloring was all wrong and quite striking. I was almost certain that I had correctly identified the tree species but I am not a real botanist. I brought my digital camera the next day and took a few photos, then emailed them along with a brief letter detailing my best guess to Larry P. Lowman. Larry is the go-to guy when it comes to wild plant identification in the eastern U.S. Larry emailed me back and said that he had forwarded the photos and message to Don Shadow of Shadow Nursery in central Tennessee and congratulated me on my "good eye". Don Shadow is a world-class nurseryman with a track record of propagating just these sort of plant oddities.
The sapling that had caught my eye was what botanists would call a sport, or natural mutation. The tree was a Tupelo (aka Blackgum) but not like any that had ever been seen (or at least documented) before. The leaves are a lighter green color than "normal" Blackgum and each leaf has a creamy white border of varying width. It was a prime example of what is known as a variegated cultivar. Tupelo is what botanists refer to as polygamo-dioecious, which means that individual plants are (usually) either male or female. We now had a goal. To preserve the mutated plant by propagating it. The species is a stubborn one to propagate vegetatively. Cuttings refuse to take root and, even if we could be assured that this tree would survive to maturity, it is unlikely that the trait would be in the offspring. That meant grafting. Grafting just happens to be one of Don Shadow's specialties.
Larry sent detailed instructions on how to prepare the scions for shipment and overnite Fedex them to Shadow Nursery where Don would work his magic. I followed them religiously. The original tree continues to thrive, even seeming to benefit from the pruning. From that one set of grafts, Don Shadow was able to get about sixty viable trees in 2004. He reports that the variegation is consistent and stable and, best of all, doesn't scorch in full sun. Half of these grafted trees are in containers and last fall (2005) Mr. Shadow brought two to Larry's Ridgecrest Nursery. One of these is now doing quite well in my front yard. The name for the cultivar was chosen by me as a combination of cloud (for what I imagine a mature tree will look like), and Sheri (in memory of my late wife). Sheri's Cloud. In September of 2004 I attended the annual meeting for the Arkansas Native Plant Society and Larry Lowman was the guest speaker. His lecture was on new plant introductions for the year and he saved "my" tree for last.
This August (2006) I tried my hand at grafting, taking eight scions from the original tree and grafting them to two saplings already growing at my home and two at the state park where I work. Since I don't have experience grafting we will just have to see. I am also anxious to see if it is a "boy" or a "girl" tree. I'll keep you posted.
Disclaimer: Lest anyone misunderstand, this new cultivar is not a new species any more than a red delicious is a new species of apple. More correctly it is a new variety of an existing species.
Here is a picture of 'Sheri's Cloud'. (external link) or copy and paste the following in the location bar on your browser:
Update: Feb. 7, 2010, The tree has now appeared at several large nurseries and arboretums and was featured in the Delaware Center for Horticulture's 2008 Rare Plant Auction.