Flowers from the last frontier: Professor Neil Anderson’s quest for the arctic daisy

June 26, 2018

By Rachel Parks

Alaska: A home not only to enormous glaciers and wild salmon, but to a wide and unique variety of plant life. This was the destination for Horticultural Science professor Neil O. Anderson in fall of 2017 and again this spring, with the goal of expanding the germplasm collection for his chrysanthemum breeding program. Anderson’s focus species was Chrysanthemum arcticum and its two subspecies, commonly known as the arctic daisy, all of which grow primarily in coastal areas within the “last frontier” of the United States.

The arctic daisy is the only chrysanthemum species native to North America, with Alaska as its center of origin and diversity, according to Anderson. However, it has never been thoroughly researched or used in genetic studies—one of many reasons Anderson is interested in it. From both an evolutionary and genetic perspective, the arctic daisy appears to be an exceptional species that could be useful for new cultivar development. Its more unusual traits, like high tolerance for salty soils, could be combined with desirable traits from other species through selective breeding.

The trip to Alaska required months of careful planning. Anderson contacted local plant experts, botanists, and taxonomists for more information about where he might find the species, as well as where it no longer grows. He also had to obtain permission to collect on federal, state, and tribal lands before travel plans could be finalized.

It wasn’t long after Anderson and his team arrived and set their sights on collecting live specimens that they encountered a series of challenges. A trip to the Aleutian Islands had to be cancelled because of dangerous sea conditions. The team also had to wear special protection gear when working in the Kodiak Archipelago to protect themselves against the Kodiak brown bear. And, while Anderson spent two months searching for plant populations in areas where the arctic daisy was historically documented, he came back empty handed. Not to be discouraged by a lack of live plants, Anderson collected dried samples of leaves from hundreds specimens held in research facilities throughout the United States to extract DNA for genetic analysis.

With a renewed focus, Anderson returned to Alaska in late spring of 2018 to explore sites he couldn’t visit the first time, including Attu Island—the westernmost of the Aleutian Islands. Attu is an uninhabited World War II battle site that Anderson was able to reach thanks to the only charter boat (the Pŭk-ŭk) to take birding and research groups the 800 miles round trip from Adak Island across the formidable Bering Sea each year.

Visiting earlier in the year, when the arctic daisy was more likely to be growing and setting flower buds, promised Anderson a chance to spot the plants more easily, albeit at the cost of missing the seed collection season.

To his delight, Anderson was successful in locating 21 populations of the arctic daisy growing along the coastline. The plants were found growing on steep rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean and high up in sphagnum moss covered mountainsides. Their small shoots and leaves were just barely visible, peeking out from thick, normally underground stems (called rhizomes). Over the course of the 17 day trip, Anderson collected more than 300 plant samples, which are now either growing in the University’s greenhouses or frozen for DNA extraction in future genetic studies.

“It was a remarkably successful trip,” noted Anderson. “Fun and sometimes dangerous, but a worthwhile adventure that will yield benefits for a long time to come.”