Wildflower Watch

The Best of Both Worlds - Collecting and illustrating plants for The Flora of Virginia Project 

by Lara Call Gastinger
Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist, Volume 12, Issue 4 

After receiving a master degree in plant ecology from Virginia Tech, I found a position with the Flora of Virginia Project to collect and illustrate plant specimens in Virginia. The project is run by a private foundation of numerous botanists throughout the state. The end product will be a reference manual for botanists, gardeners, and teachers to identify native and naturalized Virginia flora and to promote conservation of native species. 

There are approximately 3800 vascular plant species found in Virginia, some found exclusively in the state. The first and only flora for Virginia was written in 1743 and current botanical manuals have outdated botanical nomenclature. This project is greatly needed. 

I have been working on this project for four years. Busy during the growing season of March through November, the work is slower when plants are dormant, since the illustrations are drawn from life. Typically, I venture out to various nature preserves or private properties (with the owner’s permission!) to collect specimens. It is a wonderful experience to hone my botanical identification skills in the field. I have visited some pristine sites, learned about rare species, and seen how this project can bring awareness for conservation of these plants. I photograph the species, so that I can recall its habit and growth form, before collecting it. The plant is dug up from the base so that the basal leaves or important roots are included. Plants are put in a plastic bag, immediately into a cooler, and finally into my refrigerator. Ideally, the next day I select a plant, lay it out on my desk, stand it upright in water if it is sturdy enough, or hold it with my hands as needed and sketch out the overall shape in pencil. Wildflower specimens tend to wilt very fast, so I work very fast! 

Once the sketch is complete, I scan it and e-mail it to a botanist at the Natural Heritage Program for the state for approval. A specimen sheet is also made of the plant so that the identity of the species can be confirmed if there are any questions. Once approved, the sketch is inked with Pigma Micron pens (01 for the outline and 005 for the delicate parts and stipples). All of the illustrations will be completed as pen and ink illustrations. I have illustrated almost 700 plant specimens. The goal is to have the Flora of Virginia finished by 2011. Along with the illustrations, several botanists will be compiling the dichotomous key and botanical descriptions for each species. 

I have been very lucky. The Flora of Virginia Project has given me the opportunity of combining my love of botanical art with my botanist background in a way I could only have dreamed. For me, it is the best of all worlds! More information on the project can be found at www.state.va.us/dcr/dnh/vaflora

  Trifolium pratense L., “Red clover,” color exploration for The Flora of Virginia Project, ©Laura Gastinger, 2005 

Hexastylis, pen and ink, ©Laura Gastinger 

  • Trifolium pratense L., “Red clover,” color exploration for The Flora of Virginia Project, ©Laura Gastinger, 2005
  • Hexastylis, pen and ink, ©Laura Gastinger