The Flora of Virginia Project, in print at last

I recently attended a talk by Marion Lobstein, a charming and knowledgeable professor emeritus of botany at Northern Virginia Community College, on how to use a long-awaited guide to Virginia’s vascular plants, “Flora of Virginia.”

The guide was the culmination of the nonprofit Flora of Virginia project, started by Lobstein in 2001, guided by her and a team of botanists, and funded through several nonprofit organizations, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and individual donors. So why do we need this guide, or “flora,” as botanists refer to it?

The front cover of the “Flora of Virginia,” a new guide that describes nearly 3,200 species of wild plants in Virginia and includes a key to help identify them. Photo courtesy of Flora of Virginia Project.
The front cover of the “Flora of Virginia,” a new guide that describes nearly 3,200 species of wild plants in Virginia and includes a key to help identify them. Photo courtesy of Flora of Virginia Project.

“Lacking a flora for their own state for decades – or centuries – Virginia botanists had to use other floras,” wrote the book’s editor, Bland Crowder, in a recent email. Previously, I used the one for West Virginia, which now resides in the Rappahannock County Public Library’s Conservation Collection alongside a newly purchased “Flora of Virginia.”

The plant cataloging alone was a monumental undertaking by a large team of mostly volunteer experts, including many from the Virginia Native Plant Society, which sponsored Lobstein’s talk. I was along on one VNPS expedition on the property of Rappahannock residents and project supporters Bruce and Susan Jones; the couple had offered to pay a “bounty” to the project for each species identified. I served more as a spotter, since my plant identification skills were even more minimal than they are now.

Under the editorship of Browder, the job of writing the book was undertaken by three botanists: Alan S. Weakley, University of North Carolina’s Herbarium curator, and J. Christopher Ludwig and John F. Townsend from the DCR’s Natural Heritage Program.

Most of the 1,500 pages are devoted to descriptions of Virginia’s almost 3,200 native and nonnative species in 200 families of wild vascular plants, the more highly evolved plants that make up about 93 percent of plant species. Each species is described in fine detail, 1,400 species are accompanied by line drawings and other information – such as flowering and fruiting times, the plant’s status in the state and the characteristics of its habitat – are included.

Identifying plants is a challenge even for experienced botanists, as Lobstein acknowledges, so the Flora also has an extensive key that moves users through a stepped identification process. A good portion of her talk was devoted to guiding the audience through the key to identify a single plant. I got lost in the terminology early on.

Although the book has an extensive glossary, I longed for the little definition bubbles that pop up on my Kindle when I select a word I don’t know, but was encouraged by Lobstein’s admittance that even she couldn’t remember the definitions of all the terms. Instead, she said, she’s relied for years on a much smaller paperback – “Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary,” by James G. Harris and Melinda Woolf Harris – for that. 

Readers of the guide can ramp up by starting with the guide’s chapters on the history of botanical exploration in Virginia, the processes by which the state’s plant communities have developed over geological time, 50 of the best sites at which to learn about Virginia’s plant life and the history of the Flora of Virginia project.

The guide’s organization of plants reflects some significant changes in plant taxonomy that are primarily based on new studies of plant DNA. Plant families have been split up and reunited, and individual members have been moved from family to family, Lobstein says. Such reclassifications are already sparking lively debates among plant fans. Some plant fans will lament, as she admitted she does, the move of favorite plants out of favorite families. (Yes, there apparently is classism among scientists.)

However, as Lobstein readily acknowledges, such evolution in taxonomy has been going on ever since Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus developed the first species cataloging system in the middle of the 18th century. The internet and new DNA mapping technology are just speeding up the process to a pace that can be disconcerting even for botanists.

The Flora was carefully vetted, but with its size and complexity, it’s no surprise that errors are already being spotted. Lobstein encourages users to send feedback to the project on any such issues, so corrections can be made in the next edition and included in online updates.

Sales of the guide have been brisk at Amazon, for a highly technical book that retails at $80. Of the 3,500 copies printed in December, only two were left by March 24, so I’m glad I got my copy early. Not all have gone to Virginians, writes Crowder. This isn’t surprising because, as he notes, only six of the plants listed are thought to be exclusive to the Old Dominion.

The well-bound book, printed in Texas, also presents the obvious logistical issue of lugging the distinctly not-waterproof, seven-pound behemoth into the hinterland to identify plants. Pulling plants for later identification is a no-no because of the devastation it can cause to a species; it’s illegal in some cases. Instead, Lobstein suggests taking photos or making drawings for later identification using the Flora.

Personally, I’m pining for an electronic version, especially a mobile app that could go on my phone and provide the ability to search for words and look up terms. Although apps weren’t exactly a big thing when the project started 12 years ago, Lobstein said the project team is looking into developing one now that the print edition is out.

“In 2001 we promised a book, and we delivered,” she said. Those attending Lobstein’s talk showed their appreciation for this incredible effort with enthusiastic applause. Although the first edition came out just a few months ago, Lobstein says the project team is already working on a second edition, to be published in 2020.

The book is not just for plant hobbyists or researchers. Tom Smith, director of the Virginia Natural Heritage Program and a member of the Flora Project’s board, is quoted by Brower as saying, “The Flora is going to be important to botanists, ecologists, planners and environmental consultants in finding, managing, conserving and restoring our native plant communities for generations to come.”

Lobstein encourages anyone interested in the project to check its website (floraofvirginia.org) often for updates on the book and other information.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 275 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”