The Flora of Virginia

A Journey of Documenting Virginia's Flora

Ever since I was a child, looking at the small details of plants and learning their names and stories has been a joy for me. Today, that journey has continued, and most recently, was embodied in the publication of the Flora of Virginia. I was honored to contribute approximately 1300 inked plant illustrations for this book.

The project began for me while I was at Virginia Tech receiving my Masters Degree in Plant Ecology in 2002. I heard that a flora for Virginia was going to be produced and an illustrator was needed. Upon completing my master’s degree, I contacted Chris Ludwig, the botanist and proceeded to complete an interview that included a plant identification quiz and a timed drawing session!

After 10 years of work, the newly published Flora of Virginia is a hefty tome (almost 7 lbs.) that includes both native and naturalized plant species found in Virginia. It includes detailed identification keys and descriptions for the 3164 native and naturalized species that are found in Virginia. This is meant to be a botanical reference manual for ecological research, education and conservation. This is a special moment for Virginia since John Clayton published the last flora, called Flora Virginica, over 250 years ago.

According to botanist and author Chris Ludwig…”Virginia has a richer plant life than most other states. There are many reasons for this – the diversity of topography from the coast to the Appalachian Plateau, the patchwork of soil and rock types that are the basis of plant habitats, and the fact that many northern plants reach their southern limits in Virginia, and many southern ones reach their northern limits here.”

In the initial stages of the project, I was able to journey out in the field to collect plants with several renowned Virginia botanists (Chris Ludwig, Tom Wieboldt, Johnny Townsend, Ken Lawless, Alan Weakley, Chip Morgan, Mo Stevens). In the field, I photographed the specimen and collected it (with permission) and placed it with labels into a large Ziploc bag to be stored in my refrigerator.

This was particularly rewarding aspect of the project; learning about different plant communities, being on trips when new plants were described, learning about endangered species such as the smooth coneflower (Echinacea laevigata), finding ticks all over me, and being in the woods with people who were walking plant encyclopedias. I used a dichotomous key and forced myself to learn all the differences between pubescent, puberuluent, hirsute, and tomentose.

A few years later, my life grew richer (and crazier) with the birth of my first son. At that point, I was still able to illustrate plants during naptime, but I had several fellow botanists deliver the specimens to me. Sometimes, the plants came in plastic bags in the mail. Other times they were placed in large plastic bags in a cooler that I left on my front porch. With a small identifying tag in each bag, I knew what the plant was and was able to draw each one within a week before the specimen was useless. Near the end of the project, remaining plants were drawn from photographs or dried herbarium specimens at the University of Richmond herbarium. In the herbarium, I also collaborated with the botanist to create plates (full pages comparing similar species) of the oaks, hickories, maples, among others.

I drew each illustration on 140 lb hot press Fabriano in HB pencil first. This was scanned into the computer and emailed to the botanist in Richmond for confirmation of accuracy. Sometimes, there were revisions to be made such as leaf orientation, flower shape, stem texture, or leaf venation. If approved, the sketch was inked with a Micron 01 pen, then delivered to Richmond. In total, each illustration took 2-6 hours. Time varied due to complexity or size, and some required numerous revisions. I was grateful for the flexibility in my schedule and this was a perfect fit for the early child-rearing years.

Some memorable moments of the project included drawing a huge Ligusticum canadense – it was larger than my son at the time! Some of the larger plants were a challenge, both to compose and fit into a digestible, understandable, and accurate illustration. Sometimes, plants were filled with bugs! I recall drawing poison sumac while leaving it within a plastic bag so as to not touch it yet also received the lovely Liparis lilifolia (tway blade) in a pot that I still treasure. It was a challenge to receive damaged specimens, missing leaves or being heavily eaten by herbivores, or to only have an image to work from.

From the perspective of a botanical artist, I viewed this project as a great exercise in a constant daily practice of drawing plant specimens and learning their important characteristics. Learning to identify plants and understanding their relationships (learning plant families is a great place to start) is key to making a convincing drawing or painting. This project consisted of daily exercises of drawing plants which helped build towards bigger compositional works.

From this project, I have received some commissions from clients who have a special native Virginia plant that they would love immortalized on their walls. My greater appreciation of the natural environment has spurred me to work towards becoming a Virginia Master Naturalist (the Rivanna Chapter). This has renewed my excitement of getting back into teaching children about local botany and I have even taught several elementary classes how to use Micron pens to illustrate plants.

I strongly feel that as botanical artists and illustrators, it is our job to inspire the next generation with the beauty and complexity of our natural world. We are charged with taking the complex world of nature and creating a piece of work that is to be a source of awe and learning for the viewer. It is the goal of the Flora of Virginia project to inspire people about the flora in their own backyards, motivate to conserve our beautiful natural areas, and help us appreciate the gift of the plants that we tend to forget our connection to. The author of the Flora of Virginia, Chris Ludwig, likes to use to the words of the Senegalese conservationist, Baba Dioum to make the Flora’s goal clear…“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

 

 

  • Lara Call Gastinger presents a copy of the Flora of Virginia during its December release.
  • A sample plate of Quercus (oak) leaves in the Flora of Virginia.