Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins
Columnist

New book records Virginia’s plants

Early on in the project, Lara Call Gastinger would collect plant specimens in the Piedmont of central Virginia. Later when her first son arrived, and then her second son, other biologists would send her wildflowers through the mail, or the flora would just show up in a cooler placed at her front door.

Over the years, she drew 1,300 illustrations of key parts of perennials, shrubs, shade trees and conifers in the light-filled studio of her cottage in downtown Charlottesville.

Adrian Higgins

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the Washington Post Garden Book and Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden.

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(HANDOUT: BRIT press) - Cover of “Flora of Virginia.”

“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.

The work includes non-native plants that have made their way into the wild, some of them as bullying invasives such as Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy and Japanese stilt grass. Escaped exotic plants that persist uncommonly on their own are described as “waifs” and include such things as the melon and the iconic Virginia crops of tobacco and peanuts. The rare wildlings also include marijuana, which used to be grown for rope decades ago and is now rarely found naturalized, though it is still widely cultivated illicitly.

The underlying paradox of “Flora of Virginia” is that it logs plants that grow outside of cultivation, but it is often human action that has profoundly driven and changed their existence in more than 400 years of settlement.

When colonists arrived, 94 percent of the state was forested (now 63 percent, much of it from logging). Vast, unchecked forest fires would allow savannas and grasslands to thrive and oaks to dominate the forest. The state still counts an impressive 58 species or forms of oak. Gastinger drew plates showing 20 oak leaves and acorns, presenting the astonishing variation within one genus.

Human activity and its effects continue. Since 1980, more has been done to conserve natural areas and to protect and preserve wetlands, but much has been lost. Development, including road building, disturbs habitats and gives invasive exotics an invitation to move in.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Northern Virginia and other parts of the Washington area, where the occurrence of non-native species has doubled from 18 percent in 1919 to 36 percent today. A century ago, Japanese honeysuckle was the only exotic invader of note. Now the list includes wineberry, winged euonymus, Oriental bittersweet and Japanese barberry.

Globalization, which has also brought a host of unwanted plant pests and diseases, threatens more. As for global warming, “climate change is certain to have far-reaching, yet hard to predict consequences for Virginia’s flora,” contributor Gary Fleming of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation writes in the book.

For Gastinger, who worries about the world that awaits her children’s generation, this substantial printed resource offers an antidote to a physical universe that is retreating and a digital one that is spreading.

“I want them to have an appreciation for nature, and a respect for it,” she said of her children. “And enjoy it.”

When she laid out the specimens, often in their wilted state, she would allow her fine ink pen to breathe life into them on the page. Working with Ludwig and the other main authors, Alan Weakley and John Townsend, she would decide what part of a plant to illustrate and how to present it.

Apart from the book, her studio has reminders of her work: a skeleton of a fern, nuts and seed pods in a bowl, dried sumac blooms in glass vials — dead bits that are resurrected on paper. When I went to see her last week, she was painting an image of a kale. In this guise, as a botanical artist, her aim is to produce a portrait of her subject, slug holes and all. As a botanical illustrator for the book, she needed a different artistic mind-set: “Illustrations explain the plant. They’re didactic. Everything is shown correct and accurately.” Which is not to say they are devoid of poetry.

Take the book’s cover image. The authors had many emblematic Virginia plants to choose from: perhaps the state’s official bloom, the flowering dogwood, or the Virginia bluebell, or the twinleaf, a wildflower whose Latin name honors Thomas Jefferson. The winner was the delicate Eastern spring beauty, Claytonia virginica. It is named for John Clayton, an 18th-century Virginia botanist whose 1737 manuscript became the basis of “Flora Virginica.”

Its 21st-century counterpart demonstrates to a new age the state’s fragile bounty. “I’m always amazed by plants,” Gastinger said. “How they persist, how they have adapted.”

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