Plant Conference Speakers



John Abbott, Ph.D.

John Abbott is Director of Museum Research and Collections for the University of Alabama Museums. John’s research focuses on aquatic insects, particularly the systematics and biogeography of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata). John has authored many papers on aquatic insects and written several books including a set of field guides to the Damselflies and Dragonflies of Texas. He and his wife are currently working on the new Peterson Field Guide to North American Insects and a book on the Common Insects of Texas. He is also the creator of several citizen science initiatives including OdonataCentral (, the MigratoryDragonflyPartnership (, and PondWatch ( He has served as President of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas and as their Editor-in-Chief. He is currently Managing Editor for the International Journal of Odonatology. Beyond these interests, John is an avid nature photographer whose photographs have appeared in numerous calendars, magazines and books. His photography website is

Mark Bailey

Mark Bailey was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and earned his Master’s degree in Zoology at Auburn University. He worked nine years for The Nature Conservancy - Alabama as zoologist at the Alabama Natural Heritage Program in Montgomery. Since 1997 he has worked as a consulting biologist through his own company, Conservation Southeast. Mark lives with his wife and daughter in the Conecuh National Forest near Andalusia.

Sara Bright & Paulette Ogard

Sara Bright (photographer) and Paulette Ogard (writer) have collaborated for more than twenty years to document the life histories of southeastern butterflies and are the authors of Butterflies of Alabama: Glimpses into Their Lives (University of Alabama Press, 2008). Through the generosity of many donors, a copy of that book, along with a teacher’s guide, has been placed in each public elementary school in the state. Their articles have appeared in publications that include American Butterflies, Southern Lepidopterists’ News, and News of the Lepidopterists’ Society. Most recently they have worked together as members of the steering committee that developed and continues to guide the new Alabama Butterfly Atlas, a website dedicated to butterfly research, education, and conservation.

Bashira Chowdhury

Bashira Chowdhury is an MIT-trained biologist who first entered the field of pollination biology under the direction of Neal Williams and Kimiora Ward in the Department of Entomology at the University of California-Davis. While working on a variety of crop pollination studies with almonds, watermelon and organic tomatoes, she developed a framework of how landscape changes affect pollination delivery to our crop fields along with honing her technical skills in pollination biology. She later worked under Jill Anderson, a plant evolutionary geneticist now in the Department of Ecology at the University of Georgia, where she studied how plants inherit genes that help them adapt to drought. All the while, she kept conversing in pollination biology at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and later at the Logan Bee Lab at Utah State University. Based on a comment from Laurence Packer, a Canadian melittologist, who mentioned that we know little about pollination in the American Southeast, she began a collaboration with Charles Ray, Auburn University's Curator of Entomology which has now become the Bee Biodiversity Initiative, a statewide network of ecologists, botanists and entomologists working to protect Alabama's native pollinators.

Tradd Cotter

Tradd Cotter is a microbiologist, professional mycologist, and organic gardener, who has been tissue culturing, collecting native fungi in the Southeast, and cultivating both commercially and experimentally for more than twenty-two years. In 1996 he founded Mushroom Mountain, which he owns and operates with his wife, Olga, to explore applications for mushrooms in various industries and currently maintains over 200 species of fungi for food production, mycoremediation of environmental pollutants and natural alternatives to chemical pesticides. His primary interest is in low-tech and no-tech cultivation strategies so that anyone can grow mushrooms on just about anything, anywhere in the world. Mushroom Mountain is currently expanding to 42,000 square feet of laboratory and research space near Greenville, South Carolina, to accommodate commercial production, as well as mycoremediation projects. Tradd, Olga, and their daughter, Heidi, live in Liberty, South Carolina.

Danny Cox

Danny Cox, Naples Botanical Garden’s (Naples, FL) Aquatic Areas Specialist, is a young horticulture professional dedicated to increasing his knowledge of plants and working with people through education and civic engagement. Danny started his horticulture career at Naples Botanical Garden as an intern in 2010. Since 2011, Danny has served as the Garden’s primary water gardener, growing and maintaining the waterlilies and other aquatic plants. Danny received his degree in Environmental Studies (B.A.) from Florida Gulf Coast University in 2014. During the summer 2015, Danny completed an internship at Longwood Gardens (Kennett Square, PA) to learn new techniques from their Water Lily Curator, Tim Jennings. Currently Danny serves on the board of directors for the Naples Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society.

J. Hill Craddock, Ph.D.

James Hill Craddock is the UC Foundation Davenport Professor in Biology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science. He grew up in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, son of a Marine Biologist father and an Emergency Room Nurse mother, and went to sea for the first time at age 16, working summers on commercial fishing boats. He grew his first chestnut tree from a seed he planted at age 15 and he is still a chestnut enthusiast. He moved to Italy in 1987 where he and his wife Paola helped run her family's restaurant business. They moved with their son Emilio to Tennessee in November of 1994. Dr. Craddock completed doctoral and postdoctoral research on hazelnut and chestnut biology at the Universita’ di Torino in Turin, Italy before conducting postdoctoral research on anthracnose-resistant dogwood cultivars at the Tennessee State University/USDA-ARS Nursery Crops Research Station in McMinnville, TN. He holds a Master’s Degree in Horticulture from Oregon State University, in Corvallis, OR, and a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and Biology (double major) from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. His current research is focused on the restoration of the American chestnut to the Appalachian hardwood forest ecosystem and the establishment of a commercial chestnut industry in Tennessee. His project areas include breeding for resistance to chestnut blight and Phytophthora root rot, Castanea germplasm collection and characterization and chestnut cultivar evaluations.

Tom Diggs, Ph.D.

Tom is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of North Georgia. He teaches botany, plant physiology and identification of vascular flora, and his research focuses on the evolution, geography and conservation of rare and endemic plants. His passion is the native flora of the southeastern US, and you can often find him in some inhospitable swamp or on the face of a cliff, camera in hand, mulling over a botanical mystery.

Aaron Floden, Ph.D.

Aaron Floden is a plant taxonomist with a broad range of botanical interests in North America and Asia. He holds a B.A. from TN-Knoxville (though started at Kansas State) and a Ph.D. from the same. He works at the Missouri Botanical Garden as the Curator of the Flora of Missouri (including the broader Midwest and parts of the Southeast). Aaron is a co-author of the recent Guide to the Vascular Plants of Tennessee. He has authored over a dozen papers with a focus on Southeastern North American taxa and the predominantly Asian genus Polygonatum in which he has described six new species.

Jim Fowler

Jim Fowler was born in Bennettsville, South Carolina. As a child, under the influence of his father and maternal great-grandmother, he developed an interest in nature in general and wildflowers in particular. An independent botanist and a software systems developer, Jim holds B.S. and M.S. degrees from Clemson University. He lives with his life partner in Greenville, S.C. He has a passion for native orchids which seems to be incurable, with treatment that gives only a temporary relief. Jim's writing has appeared in the North American Native Orchid Journal, American Orchid Society's Orchid magazine, the Native Orchid Conference Journal, South Carolina Native Plant Society's monthly newsletter and numerous other publications. He is the author of Wild Orchids of South Carolina: A Popular Natural History, which was published in 2005 by the University of South Carolina Press and Orchids, Carnivorous Plants, and Other Wildflowers of the Green Swamp, North Carolina, which was self-published in 2015. His photographic images have appeared in numerous magazines, newsletters, and websites in North America as well as overseas. He currently devotes any free time he has to his photography blog:

John Manion

Though born in Georgia, John spent his youth growing up in rural upstate NY. He has lived in many places in the U.S. and abroad and after working in several careers (the longest as an emergency/trauma nurse) he realized his true passion was for plants. After earning an undergraduate degree in plant science at SUNY Cobleskill, he was awarded a fellowship to earn a Master’s Degree in Public Garden Leadership at Cornell University. He has interned and worked at several botanical gardens and arboreta, including the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland. After working as Historic Gardens Curator at the Atlanta History Center, he assumed his present position as Kaul Wildflower Garden Curator at Birmingham Botanical Gardens in Alabama, where he has been for five years. Six years ago John began a Certificate in Native Plant Studies program that has been immensely successful.

Jamie Nobles

Jamie is the Conservation Director at Ruffner Mountain. He actually looks like a conservation director with an Abraham Lincoln style beard and height to rival Honest Abe. Unlike Abe, who was self-educated, Jamie holds a B.S. in Zoology from Auburn University. He may be able to split rails, too, but he’s better at getting rid of invasive plants, guiding and training volunteers and restoring animal habitats, helping Ruffner look more like it did when it was really wilderness. Jamie lives near Ruffner and can usually be found walking the trails tending one project after another. Sometimes wild animals follow him around, making sounds of gratitude, but the plants pay homage quietly.

J. R. Rigby, Ph.D.

J.R. Rigby is President of the Mississippi Ornithological Society and an avid recordist of bird sounds. A native Mississippian, J.R. discovered birds relatively late in life but has been making up for lost time. When he is not working at his day job as a research hydrologist, he can most often be found (or not) recording bird sounds for the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science bioacoustics collection around the state.

Mitchell Robinson

Mitchell Robinson graduated from the University of the South, Sewanee, in 2007 with a B.S. in Natural Resources and the Environment, and has been the Conservation Education Manager at Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in Holly Springs, MS since 2014. Previously, he served for five years as the Education Coordinator, Land Manager and Interim Director at Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve in Austin, Texas. Within these capacities, he helped develop and implement active land management plans for endangered species within the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve System, including Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos. His expertise includes endangered, threatened and invasive species management; interagency and non-profit collaborations; research design; private lands consultation; and naturalist education. In 2015, Mitch spoke at the inaugural TEDxUM event, with a talk titled “Being a Conservationist in Mississippi: Diversity and Biodiversity.” In and outside of his work, he actively seeks to bridge the gap between humans and the natural world, illuminating our interactions and helping others define a sense of place.

John Tobe, Ph.D.

John David Tobe has taught and practiced the science and botany of plant ecology, botanical illustration, natural history, horticulture, wetland ecology and ecological restoration for over 25 years. He is the author of Florida Wetland Plants, an Identification Guide and Florida Wetland Delineation Manual. He has published papers on floristics, plant taxonomy and restoration. He has traveled throughout the world in an effort to better understand the biology and evolution of plants, and restoration, especially as this relates to the cultural and built landscapes. He has always been interested in botany from an early age, planting and recording in 1972 the first seeds planted in Quitman, GA of what has become the Tobe Botanic Garden. This living plant “laboratory” and family collaboration of conservation lands, art, horticulture, and garden making, is now 45 years in the making. He is an ardent supporter of ecological restoration and is interested in the benefits that native landscapes provide, especially regarding the enhancement of ecological resilience and sustainability as this relates to climate change. Currently he is the director of Ecologic Restoration and Conservation for ERC, Inc. based in Tallahassee, Florida.

Alan Weakley Ph.D.

Alan Weakley is a plant taxonomist, community ecologist and conservationist specializing in the Southeastern United States. He holds a B.A. from UNC-Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. from Duke University. He has worked as botanist and ecologist for the N.C. Natural Heritage Program, and as regional and chief ecologist for The Nature Conservancy and NatureServe. He is currently Director of the UNC Herbarium, a department of the N.C. Botanical Garden, and teaches as adjunct faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill and at the Highlands Biological Station. Alan is author of the Flora of the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic States, and co-author (with Chris Ludwig and Johnny Townsend) of the Flora of Virginia, which has received five awards, including the Thomas Jefferson Award for Conservation. He has also released an app, FloraQuest, co-developed with Michael Lee and Rudy Nash, covering the Southeastern United States flora. He has authored over 100 journal articles and book chapters, and is in high demand as a speaker on plant taxonomy, community classification and mapping, biogeography, and biodiversity. He is active with the Flora of North America project and the United States National Vegetation Classification, serves as an advisor to the N.C. Natural Heritage Program and N.C. Plant Conservation Program, and is a co-founder of the Carolina Vegetation Survey. As a trustee and board member of public and private conservation granting agencies and foundations, he has helped oversee $400,000,000 of land conservation grants in the Southeastern United States.

Robin Whitfield

Robin lives and works in Grenada in north central Mississippi. She works on location in rivers, swamps and forests near her downtown studio and around the state. Her work explores the poetic relationships of form and color found in nature. Discovering and sharing the beauty of ecology, natural habitats and biodiversity is a driving force in her creative life. Robin works on paper with traditional watercolors and pigments gathered from the wild. Robin graduated from Delta State University in 1996 with a BFA in Painting. She travels the south painting on public land, teaching creative workshops and giving presentations that connect people to nature. She has been on the Mississippi Arts Commission Roster since 2006, an artist-in-residence for ArtPlace Mississippi since 2002 and an Audubon Master Naturalist of Mississippi since 2007. Her artworks and illustrations have been featured in numerous publications including “Words on Nature: a collection of writings by Eudora Welty” edited by Patti Carr-Black. She was selected to be the Artist-In Residence at Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge for the fall of 2014. Over the past decade she has been Director of Friends of Chakchiuma Swamp Natural Area.

Jon Woolley

Raised on a family farm in Sterrett, Alabama, Jon received his Jefferson County Master Gardener Certification in 2007. He graduated with an Interdisciplinary degree in Political Science, Global Economics and Applied Anthropology from UAB in 2009. During his time at UAB, Jon conducted four years of sustainable agriculture research at Jones Valley Urban Farm. He possesses an artist’s eye and mathematician’s sense of order, working as a Garden Designer and Farm Manager for a variety of public and private gardens in Birmingham, Boulder, Colorado, and Asheville, North Carolina. As Conservation Design Manager at Ruffner Mountain, he brings all of this experience to the table, not to mention his seven years of applied research in the fields of Organic Farming, Animal Husbandry, Permaculture Design and Biophilic Design. The next time you’re at Ruffner you may catch a straw-hatted figure watering the gardens, building a wattle fence, planting native plants, or working on a sketch for a new garden design. That’s Jon. Drawing, planting, designing and always envisioning a more vital, verdant Ruffner Mountain.