Martha Joiner's way with plants - including some rare, carnivorous bog-born beauties she has been nurturing for years - won her admirers at The Environmental Resources Network.
But her way with people helped make her the influential group's 2010 Volunteer of the Year.
A love of gardening and two degrees in biology laid down her credentials as a plant person. With her undergraduate degree from Emory University, she did all sorts of laboratory work, from hospital labs to an Albany, Ga., candy factory where she worked in quality control.
But when she and her husband, history professor Dr. Hew Joiner, decided to build a home on the edge of Statesboro two decades ago, she took an interest in the native plants growing on their lot. She picked up a plant identification key, one of those guides that botanists use.
"I had always been a gardener, but I'd never really studied botany and didn't know much about it," said Joiner. "I realized I couldn't even use the key because I didn't understand enough of the botanical language."
Enrolling at GSU
So she enrolled at Georgia Southern for a master's in biology, specializing in botany. After earning her degree in 1997, she worked at the university with Dr. John Averett in grant-funded botanical research.
Meanwhile she had developed an interest in rare plants, and another since-retired professor, botanist Dr. Don Drapalik, showed her a bog system not far from Statesboro where pitcher plants grow among other rare flora. Joiner collected seeds and started propagating pitcher plants in a greenhouse at the university.
She later helped create a replica bog, where several species of pitchers thrive, at the GSU Botanical Garden.
Martha retired her lab coat at the GSU biology department in 2000 but continued working with pitcher plants as a volunteer.
After Hew retired in 2002, he started accompanying her on excursions. The Joiners still don their rubber boots and slather on insect repellent for an occasional slog to the bogs, which can occupy most of a day.
The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, or GPCA, recognized the Joiners' efforts by designating them both as Botanical Guardians.
Their all-volunteer labors have focused on a single subspecies, the coastal plain purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea ssp. venosa.
The little bog system she keeps an eye on is the only known site for the subspecies in Georgia, although it is also found in the Carolinas and Virginia.
Like other pitcher plants, these attract insects which enter the pitcher-shaped leaf formation, drown and eventually dissolve, giving the plant nutrients it cannot get from bog soil.
But the purple pitchers have an eerie beauty. The plant shoots up a thin flower stalk that towers over the pitchers and makes a graceful bend so that the flower, more crimson than purple, faces downward.
"It's called purple because of the color of the flower, but the pitcher itself is a different shape and it has lots of red venation on it, so it's really beautiful even without the flower," Joiner says, describing plants that she refers to as her "babies."
They grow slowly. It took five years before the plants she nurtured were big enough to transplant into the wild. She had to keep detailed records and exercise great care not to allow foreign pollen to "cross" her specimens.
Building the bog
But in autumn 2007, on a work day prior to a GPCA meeting at the Botanical Garden, volunteers helped transplant more than 40 of her little pitchers back to the bogs.
They are flourishing there, expanding the footprint of their species. This is one of several steps volunteers have taken to protect the fragile habitat.
A power line right of way traverses the bog system, and the power company's long habit of mowing along the right of way actually benefited the pitchers by preventing other plants from shading them out, Joiner said.
But when Georgia Power or its contractor switched to using an herbicide, she said, it devastated portions of the bog.
"Nature Conservancy and a lot of the other groups that are part of the GPCA were very concerned about this, and we got Georgia Power involved, and they have been very helpful now," Joiner said.
Georgia Power also allowed volunteers to install fencing to keep people from riding all-terrain vehicles under the power lines.
Other landowners allowed signs, funded by TERN, to be put up to further deter ATV riding. The same owners had long given Joiner access and even encouragement.
"Through Martha's skills with people, she is able to get private landowners' confidence, which is really kind of unusual.," said TERN President Brock Hutchins. "Oftentimes, landowners don't want people who love nature to be on their land doing anything there because they think it may restrict them from being able to sell the land or something like that. But apparently she is able to bring them all together."
Lisa M. Kruse, a botanist with the Nongame Conservation Section at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, nominated Joiner for the recently presented TERN award. Joiner, she says, serves as the section's eyes and ears at the bog site, which is home to many other rare plants.
Among them, Kruse identifies yellow and dwarf pitcher plants plus three other carnivorous species, including examples of sundews, bladderworts and butterworts.
In addition to these, the hummingbird flower and purple honeycomb flower, both state-listed as threatened, have been found there.
So have several orchid species and a "new to science" Georgia St. Johnswort.
"What Martha does is she monitors the entire complex of the bogs where the plants grow, so in a sense she's really protecting the whole habitat, which in itself is a very special habitat," Kruse said.
TERN, with about 250 members, is a nonprofit "friends group" that raises money for the DNR Nongame Conservation Section.
The section, a part of the Wildlife Resources Division, works to conserve wild animals and plants not covered by hunting and fishing regulations. It receives no state tax money but is supported by grants from federal agencies and nonprofit organizations, gifts, and fees for special license plates.