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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