Elsie Quarterman, who rediscovered Tennessee coneflower, dies at 103

Elsie Quarterman (Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives)

Elsie Quarterman, professor of biology, emerita, at Vanderbilt University and a prominent plant ecologist, died June 9 in Nashville. She was 103.

Quarterman was the first woman to serve as an academic department chair at Vanderbilt. She is best known for her work on the ecology of Tennessee cedar glades, a habitat that occurs when limestone bedrock is at or near the ground’s surface. These areas feature very shallow soil or exposed bedrock, rendering trees unable to grow. The “cedar” in the name comes from the abundance of eastern red cedar that grows on the margins of the glades or in cracks in the bedrock where roots gain a foothold.

Quarterman is credited with rediscovering in 1969 the native Tennessee coneflower, Echinacea tennesseensis, a plant only found in Middle Tennessee cedar glades that was previously thought to be extinct. It became the first plant endemic to Tennessee to be protected by the Endangered Species Act, and thanks to her efforts to establish more populations within the cedar glades, was removed from the endangered species list in August 2011.

Today, Echinacea tennesseensis can be found in Tennessee’s Davidson, Wilson and Rutherford counties. In 1998, the 185-acre forest near LaVergne, Tennessee, where Quarterman conducted much of her research was named the Elsie Quarterman Cedar Glade State Natural Area in her honor.

Echinacea tennesseensis (Mason Brock/Wikimedia Commons)

Born in 1910 in Valdosta, Georgia, Quarterman grew up on a family farm and first learned about wild plants from her mother. She earned a B.A. from Georgia State Woman’s College (now Valdosta State University) in 1932 and an M.A. in botany from Duke University in 1943. She came to Vanderbilt as an instructor in biology the following year and was named assistant professor in 1948, before receiving her Ph.D. in plant ecology from Duke in 1949. Quarterman was named associate professor at Vanderbilt in 1952.

In 1953, she was called upon to assist with a Vanderbilt Garden Club-led effort to conduct the first complete inventory of trees on campus since 1879. As a result, the garden club donated several hundred markers that were placed on trees by members of the Beta Beta Beta Club, a biology honorary society, under Quarterman’s direction. This tree-labeling tradition on Vanderbilt’s national arboretum campus continues today.

In 1964, Quarterman became the first woman to chair a department, the Department of General Biology, at Vanderbilt. She was named a full professor in 1966 and awarded emerita status in 1976.

Quarterman’s efforts in teaching and conservation continued well after she retired from the university, including identifying for the federal government areas that should be set aside for conservation.

Quarterman in the field. (courtesy of Tennessee Native Plant Society)

“Elsie possessed an incredible wealth of knowledge about plants that she was always happy to share with you,” said Jonathan Ertelt, Vanderbilt’s greenhouse manager, who encountered Quarterman regularly when he served as a greenhouse specialist and botanical education coordinator at Nashville’s Cheekwood Botanical Garden from 1978 to 1987. Over the years, the two saw each other at conferences and meetings of various plant societies, and both served on the Tennessee Environmental Council.

Ertelt said he last saw Quarterman about three years ago, when she stopped by the Vanderbilt greenhouse. “Physically she was slowing down, but the mind inside wasn’t any slower,” he said. “Elsie was still very much aware of and curious about the world around her.”

Quarterman was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, president of the Association of Southeastern Biologists and chairman of the election committee for the Botanical Society of America. She served as acting director of the Tennessee Botanical Gardens at Cheekwood and was founder of the Tennessee Protection Planning Committee.

The Tennessee Academy of Science honored Quarterman with the 2003 Distinguished College/University Scientist Award, and in 2008, she was given the Conservation Award by the Tennessee Native Plant Society.

Quarterman’s legacy continues in the number of botanists who followed in her footsteps. “Her passion for the plant life of Middle Tennessee’s cedar glades blooms ever strong through the generations of students she inspired at Vanderbilt University from the 1940s into the mid-1970s. Those students, many now teachers themselves, continue to inspire new students and conservationists,” said a 2011 profile in The Wilson Post.

Former students and Tennessee State Parks honored her pioneering work in 2008 by renaming an annual spring wildflower event at Cedars of Lebanon State Park, celebrated annually for more than 30 years, the Elsie Quarterman Wildflower Weekend.

A memorial service and celebration of Quarterman’s life is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, June 21, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville. A reception will follow.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Friends of Radnor Lake, Friends of Warner Parks, Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art or any group dedicated to the enjoyment and preservation of plants and the environment.