Swamp photo: Michael Terry

A Professional's Perspective on the importance of the Flora

The last refuge of a wetland professional is botany. This may seem like an obscure statement for anyone who understands what is involved in wetland delineation, for example, because vegetation accounts for only a third of what we use to define wetlands in the legal sense (the other two-thirds being soils and hydrology). But what plants represent to wetland professionals is the face of the ecosystem that gives us the overall picture. The operative term for this is physiognomy, and the overall picture rendered by the plant community is the Gestalt—an inference amounting to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. We often (very often) run into ambiguous sites halfway between wetland and upland characteristics. If the soil indicators are ambiguous, and the evidence of hydrology doesn't make sense, it is often the plant community that is used to elicit a final Doug Deberry, Wetland professional, in the field decision. It stands to reason, therefore, that the botanical acumen of the wetland professional is a limiting factor in all this. It's true: We need to know the plants.

And for most natural-resource professionals, wetland work is just the beginning. Many of us are deeply engaged in the practical application of botany to everyday tasks such as floristic inventory, plant community mapping, floristic quality assessment, threatened- and endangered-species surveys and conservation planning, plant restoration and enhancement, invasive species remediation, forest-stand delineation, and functional assessment. Further, among our ranks are natural-resource engineers and landscape architects whose ecosystem-restoration designs must be populated with the right plant species for their target ecosystems. In short, we need to know the plants, but we also need to understand their ecology. The sources of information available to help us arrive at this understanding have been many, but for centuries Virginia was an overlap state. That is, we were the beneficiary of major authorships conducted in adjacent regions, and by association or direct inclusion in those references, the story of Virginia's flora was told. But the rub in all this is that we sit at the northern extent of many southern species and vice versa. This often places us at the perimeter of a regional plant manual that might be aimed at, say, the northeastern or southeastern states. So our flora remained pieced together from such volumes, and from the mountain of unincorporated information generated by our universities, dutifully deposited in our herbaria.

The Flora of Virginia Project undertook an ambitious goal, to account for, in one volume, all the plants within the commonwealth—for the first time since Linnaeus's contemporary Gronovius summarized John Clayton's botanical exploits in the mid-1700s. The advances in our understanding of Virginia's native and naturalized plants made in the past few decades, never mind the past few centuries, have been exceptional—reason enough for a new flora to be at the top of the priority list for Virginia. Under the direction and skilled authorship of the pre-eminent authorities on Virginia's plants, this project has at last brought our knowledge up to 21st-century pace, with all this recent and historic discovery in tow. Those of us in the professional realm are glad to have this new tool, at long last.

Douglas A. DeBerry, Ph.D., PWS, PWD
Senior Environmental Scientist
Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc.
Volunteer botanist and writer for the Flora of Virginia Project
(DeBerry is also on the faculty of the College of William and Mary)