Yesterday, December 9, 2012, was a momentous day in the natural history of the state of Virginia, one of the original 13 colonies and so one of the nation’s oldest states. Yesterday, marked the celebration of the publication of the Flora of Virginia, a 1,554 page compendium of all of the plant species known to persist and reproduce in the state without cultivation. The hefty manual, 11 years in the making, includes descriptions of 3,164 species organized into 189 families, accompanied by 1400 original illustrations. There are fascinating introductory chapters describing the history of plant discovery and documentation in Virginia, the ecology and natural history of plant species as well as descriptions of accessible natural area sites that showcase the rich variety of species within Virginia’s borders. Because Virginia encompasses five physiographic provinces, from low lying coastal regions to mountainous plateaus, it harbors an unusual diversity of plant species matched only by a handful of other states that are much larger in size.
Most important of all, the manual includes a key to the general classifications and to the families within them that is described as “user-friendly and innovative” and should reduce the need to bring along a dissecting scope for a field trip (but do bring your magnifying lens). The key, the essential aide to field detective work, is prefaced by a quick explanation of the whys and wherefores of botanical keys and a review of the most common terms for botanical structures. There is also an extensive glossary of terms and the index includes listing by common as well as Latin names. You can read more about The Flora of Virginia Project which produced the manual and order a copy of it here.
Until yesterday, Virginia was the only state without a modern day flora. Until yesterday, when I ventured out on Naked Mountain looking for new flowers to identify, I had to take along the West Virginia Flora to accomplish this delightful task. I own the Second Edition published in 1978. Until yesterday, it was the best approximation I could find to a resource that might describe the species I would likely encounter on Naked Mountain.
Why Virginia was so late in developing its own modern flora may be due, in part, to the fact that this is not the first flora of Virginia to be published. The first publication took place in 1737 and was entitled, Flora Virginica. It was based on the collection and classification of plants by Virginia colonist, John Clayton, which he sent to European botanists. Clayton’s findings were astonishing to men like Carl Linnaeus, the famous originator of the species classification system used today by botanists around the world. The story of Clayton’s collaboration with European scientists is described in the new, 2012 Flora of Virginia.
Yesterday’s celebrations began at noon at The Wintergreen Nature Foundation(TWNF). Executive Director, Doug Coleman, provided an overview of the Flora of Virginia Project which enlisted support and direct input from a Who’s Who of Virginia’s botanists, botanical organizations and their leadership.
Many of them were at TWNF yesterday to bask in the glow cast by the culmination of a major piece of work that is a significant contribution not only to Virginia’s natural history, but to the natural history of the Southeastern region of the United States. The Flora’s three authors were present:
- Alan Weakley, a Virginia native, is director of the University of North Carolina Herbarium and an adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill
- Christopher Ludwig is Executive Director of the Flora Project and chief biologist of the Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
- John Townsend is staff biologist with the Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, previously curator of the herbarium of Clemson University.
Chris Ludwig, Gary Fleming, who wrote two of the introductory chapters, and many other botanists present at the celebration have been on Naked Mountain and inventoried the plants growing in the barrens there, or in several of the vegetation plots that have been established to conduct research. The Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation holds the easement for Naked Mountain and provides me with stewardship assistance to control invasive species.
Also present at yesterday’s celebration were two of the illustrators, including Lara Call Gastinger who illustrated the bulk of the Flora. Lara is an exquisite artist who won a Royal Horticultural Society gold medal in 2007. You can see some of her work here and on the Flora dust jacket (pictured above) which features one of my favorite wildflowers that I see in various locations on Naked Mountain: Claytonia virginica, Spring Beauty — a well-chosen example for its relevant historical name and its proliferation in many of Virginia’s habitats.
The Flora of Virginia is a monumental contribution for many reasons and purposes. It is designed to be used not just by scientists to further study and knowledge of Virginia’s plants, but by amateurs who simply love wildflowers. There has been attention, all along, to the next generation and how to draw them in to the fascinating world of plant biology. Efforts are already underway to convert the whole Flora into a digital app that can be downloaded onto handheld smart phones or tablet devices. The Flora Project is building a library for its website of gorgeous photographs, including a few by Kenneth Lawless of Naked Mountain’s sentinel plant, Dodecatheon meadia, or Shooting Star. As many of yesterday’s speakers emphasized, the most important hoped-for outcome of this massive, heroic effort is conservation. The more more of us know about Virginia’s hertitage, the better equipped we will all be to protect it and preserve it.
Author’s note: If you purchase a copy of the Flora of Virginia, and if you live in Virginia, or visit it on occasion I hope that you will — don’t try to read it in bed! I think it weighs about five pounds and trying to perch it on your stomach may give you indigestion!