“The cow parsnip was overwhelming,” she said. “Big.” But not as challenging as the stalks of joe-pye weed next to her drawing board, topped with impossibly intricate blossoms crawling with bugs.
The specimens are long gone, but they are immortalized in a new book, a single volume embodying the ambition of the project behind it: “Flora of Virginia” ‘weighs seven pounds, runs 1,554 pages and describes 3,164 plant species and natural variants growing wild in the diverse habitats of the Old Dominion. Its heft makes for one unwieldy field guide, but it is an incomparable and long-awaited reference for anyone drawn to our region’s flora (a digital version is in the works).
Virginia is extraordinarily rich in native flora — it is a large state that encompasses a range of topography, soils and local climates. Northern Virginia lies in the piedmont, but a short drive northwest takes you to the mountains and the valley. Travel southeast and you are soon in the maritime coastal plain.
In addition, “a lot of northern species reach their southern limit in Virginia and a lot of southern species reach their northern limit,” said Bland Crowder, the book’s editor.
The endeavor has been formally in the works since 2001, when Marion Lobstein, a now-retired professor of botany at Northern Virginia Community College, and Christopher Ludwig helped to mobilize the state’s botanical community behind it. Ludwig, one of three authors and chief biologist at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, directed the project.
The last plant inventory of its kind, “Flora Virginica,” was published 250 years ago when the commonwealth was still a colony, when the now virtually extinct American chestnut defined much of the Appalachian forest and kudzu was unknown here.
Since the 1920s, the state’s botanists have yearned to replace the old book, which was written in Holland, and entirely in Latin. Finally, “Flora of Virginia” has arrived in a deliciously analog tome that at $80 or so seems a bargain when you consider its scope, utility and guaranteed longevity.
The project created keys that will allow botanists to identify plants in the field. Lobstein, a longtime Arlington resident who now lives in Warrenton, noted that the book also describes the history of plant exploration in Virginia and lists 50 public locations to visit that are rich in wildflowers.
It’s also a good resource for nature lovers in the District and Maryland, places that share much of the same flora as Virginia, Lobstein said.
Naturalists, amateur and professional, will find it most useful, but it is a vital tool to raise awareness for the importance of conservation. It is not a pretty-picture book, but gardeners will value it, too, especially as horticulture becomes more closely allied with ecology. Many of these native plants have a place in our gardens, and many are there already: blueberries, mountain laurels, dogwoods, trilliums and, yes, joe-pye weed, to name a fraction.