Blade by blade, Va. to index all its flora

Success of project depends largely on private donations

August 11, 2002|By Scott Harper | Scott Harper,VIRGINIAN-PILOT

ISLE OF WIGHT, Va. - Chris Ludwig is licking a plant. It is a pretty little plant, a slender blade of blue-eyed grass, which the state biologist just plucked from a sandy ridge above the Blackwater River.

Though he loves plants of all kinds, his wet embrace is meant to determine if this specimen is rare in Virginia or just another piece of blue-eyed grass.

"You want to see if the stalk is slightly glaucous," Ludwig says. He quickly catches himself, realizing that his scientific terminology has just sailed over the head of his layman guest. "Waxy," he says with a grin. "You basically want to see if it's waxy."

Ludwig spends the next several hours here in the Zuni Pine Barrens, an ecological preserve about 40 miles west of Norfolk, Va., entering into his laptop computer descriptions of several grass species he collected on a recent morning hike.

Sitting at a makeshift desk under a pine tree, he is chronicling things like the width of their stems. Their height. The shape and color of their flowers. The fibers in their roots. Whether they have tiny hairs on their leaves.

Ludwig expects to do this type of research for several more years, as he and a group of botanists and naturalists attempt to compile a mammoth scientific manual, maybe 1,500 pages long, detailing every type of plant in Virginia.

With its wildly varying landscapes, from mountains to piedmont to barrier islands, Virginia supports more than 3,700 species of vegetation - 13th in the nation for plant diversity. (California is first, Iowa last.)

260 years ago

It has been more than 260 years since the first and only definitive manual was published in Virginia, in 1739, based on the fieldwork of a Gloucester County man named John Clayton, whom Thomas Jefferson called America's finest botanist.

Clayton's plant collections and field notes became the talk of European scientists of the day. And in the two centuries since, almost every other U.S. state has created its own, modern botanical encyclopedia - except Virginia.

Ludwig is the chief biologist of the renewed state effort, named the Flora of Virginia Project.

$1.7 million sought

He also serves as executive director of a newly formed nonprofit group, the Foundation of the Flora of Virginia Project Inc., which is trying to raise about $1.7 million to complete the botanical tome by 2007.

"It's a very important, and long overdue, endeavor," said Nicky Staunton, president of the Virginia Native Plant Society. "People ask us all the time, `Can you send us a list of the plants of Virginia?' And we say, `Well, no. We can't.'"

The manual is more than just intellectual fodder for scientists. It should help local planners, conservationists, developers and consultants make sound decisions about where, and where not, to disturb nature.

The book also is intended to excite a new generation of botanists, as well as guide environmental groups and state government to the diverse places most in need of preservation.

"A well-informed public is key to confronting environmental challenges," said W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., state secretary of natural resources.

The flora project was featured during the annual gathering of the Virginia Academy of Science, held last month at Hampton University.

Professors, students, botanists and master gardeners crowded into a campus auditorium to hear about the effort, its importance and previous attempts to accomplish its ambitious goals.

"Sometimes we send people to the ends of the Earth looking for rare species," said Camellia Okpodu, director of biological sciences at Hampton, "when sometimes we don't do enough to find out what's right here in Virginia."

Johnny Townsend, a botanist with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, said at least a dozen species discovered in Virginia in recent years still have not officially been named.

He described one especially rare species, the sea-beach amaranth, that shows up every few years on the sandy beaches near Chincoteague on the Eastern Shore, then simply disappears. No one is sure how or why.

Effort long thwarted

The Virginia science academy has been interested in producing a flora manual for 60 years. But star-crossed circumstances - including a fire, lost collections, illnesses, internal politics - have thwarted the effort, said Donna Ware, a College of William and Mary botanist for three decades.

The latest push began in 1999, spearheaded largely by Marion Lobstein, a Northern Virginia Community College biology professor. Since then, a group of 50 technical experts has come together to oversee the scientific accuracy of the book. And this spring, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation agreed to dedicate staff time and expertise - including that of Ludwig, a department biologist - to make the flora project happen.

Other states often have completed their manuals with public money and university experts. In Virginia, success will depend largely on private donations and the work of state officials.

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