Worth the Wait

The spring beauties blooming in my woods last week put me in mind of the gorgeous cover of my new favorite book.

Yes, Virginia.  There is a flora!  Exactly two hundred and fifty years after the publication of the original Flora Virginica (the only other flora to be published for the state, or should I say colony of Virginia) comes the long awaited and much celebrated Flora of Virginia.

What took so long?  That riveting story is woven by guest authors Nancy Ross Hugo and Donna M.E. Ware in their excellent first chapter, Plant Discovery and Documentation in Virginia: A Historical Perspective, an intriguing walk through Virginia history, and worth the price of the entire book.   They write:

“If asked how long it took to complete this volume, some might say 11 years, but, in truth, it took centuries.  It required the voyages of sixteenth-century explorers, the hardships of seventeenth-century colonists, the greed of eighteenth-century merchants, the curiosity of nineteenth-century naturalists, the drive of twentieth-century herbarium builders, and the tenacity of twenty-first- century taxonomists.”

Death by gunshot and appendicitis, destruction by arson, theft by Spanish pirates; all these prevented early botanists from completing their fieldwork or publishing their manuscripts.

And war.  The most war-torn of the fifty states, botany work in Virginia was delayed, halted altogether, or destroyed as a result of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.   All this and more is told of the hardships of early and modern botanists endured to bring to life the Flora of Virginia.

Gary Fleming guest writes the second chapter, The Nature of Virginia Flora, which explains why our plants flourish where they do in our state.  This natural history is no less compelling and in many ways is even more of a page turner than the human history presented in the first chapter:

“During the mid-Tertiary [65 to 2 million years ago], an asteroid or a comet crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in the vicinity of what is now the southern Chesapeake Bay, near the present-day town of Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore. The impact fractured bedrock to a depth of 7 miles and a width of 85 miles, forming a massive structure known as the Chesapeake Bay impact crater (Powars 2000).  Millions of tons of seawater and debris were ejected into the atmosphere and vaporized, likely followed by a huge tsunami, widespread fires, a prolonged period of darkness and acidic precipitation, and, ultimately, atmospheric cooling.  This event and its aftermath were the probable cause of a mass extinction about 33 [million years ago] during the Eocene Epoch.”

Fleming’s chapter includes predictions for the future of Virginia’s flora.  “The scientific consensus is that, if present trends continue, concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 2100 will be twice those in preindustrial times (Overpeck et al. 1991). This …suggests a warming trend stronger than that of the Hypsithermal and a large-scale northward displacement of plant species and vegetation types (Overpeck et al. 19910; Prasad et al. 2001).  Moreover, simulation models suggest that vegetation change in eastern North American during the next 200 to 500 years will equal in scope that which has occurred over the past 7,000 to 10,000 years and will likely result in the development of plant assemblages without modern analogs (Overpeck et al. 1992).”

The extensive treatment in the Flora of Virginia, in Fleming’s words, “…represents a critical step toward developing a comprehensive plan for providing Virginia’s rich native flora—its common species, rarities, and fascinating disjuncts alike—opportunities to survive an uncertain future.”

That is what author/botanists Weakley, Ludwig and Townsend had in mind when they dedicated this volume to their children, “In the hope that we will leave them more than a fraction of what was left us.”

All this, and a working field guide for the identification of the 3,164 species of plants found in the Old Dominion.  Anyone who has had the privilege, as I have, of working with some of these biologists knows how passionate they are about our flowering plants. Any day spent in the field with Chris Ludwig, for example, is a good day.  As if their discoveries aren’t enough, now these three botanists leave a different kind of a legacy.  Run, do not walk, to purchase a First Edition copy.  This is one for the ages.

Flora of Virginia

By Alan S. Weakley, J. Christopher Ludwig, John F. Townsend

Illustrations by Lara Call Gastinger, Michael A. Terry, Roy Fuller

Brit Press, 2012

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