mountaintop photo: Michael Terry

Flora of Virginia Project: Without a Flora

Until publication of the Flora of Virginia in November 2012, the most recent guide to Virginia’s plant life was Flora Virginica, published in the mid-1700s and based on plants collected and catalogued by Colonial Virginia botanist John Clayton. Without a modern flora, characterization of the state’s plant habitats was difficult, to say the least, requiring familiarity with the literature and frequent contact with the community of regional botanists.

Here's how Virginia botanists made do all those years.

The Virginia Academy of Science was founded in 1923 and formalized the goal of a modern flora only three years later, establishing a Committee on Flora (now called the Virginia Flora Committee). In 1928, the VAS met at the College of William and Mary; have a look.

• The VAS was instrumental in the publication of the Flora of Richmond and Vicinity (1931) and supported publication, in 1977, of the first Atlas of the Virginia Flora. The Committee on Flora began a newsletter called Claytonia in 1934; it is no longer published. See the first issue.

People interested in Virginia’s plant life had to rely on floras of the continent, region, or other states, yet those books didn't fill the bill.

The Flora of North America, being published a volume at a time by Oxford Press, is for experts and not appropriate for students or amateurs. Sixteen volumes have been completed, with 14 more planned or in production.

Two key regional works treat Virginia plants:

Gray’s Manual of Botany (8th edition, 1950), by Merritt Lyndon Fernald
Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada (2nd edition, 1991), by Henry A. Gleason and Arthur Cronquist. A companion volume of illustrations was published in 1999

Several states in our region have floras or plant guides, but none cover all of Virginia’s plants:

Woody Plants of Maryland (1977) and Herbaceous Plants of Maryland (1983), both by Melvin L. Brown and Russell G. Brown
The Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas (1968), by Albert E. Radford, Harry E. Ahles, and C. Ritchie Bell
Flora of West Virginia (1978), by P.D. Strausbaugh and Earl Core.
The Plants of Pennsylvania (2000), by Anne Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block
Plant Life of Kentucky (2005), by Ronald L. Jones

Two other works deserve mention:

Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States is an online flora by Alan Weakley, a co-author of the Flora of Virginia. Its identification keys are useful, but it lacks descriptions and illustrations and doesn’t give Virginia-specific information on species status and habitat.

• The Atlas of the Virginia Flora provides range maps of Virginia’s plant species. With three editions out of print, a fourth has been published online as the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora