This project was overwhelming initially, but in the end it turned out pretty well. I certainly learned a lot and I loved being out on the river. Overall, I collected 386 specimens, 260 of which have been identified to species. So far, we have at least 236 unique species. I won’t have a final count till Dr. DeBerry and I finish the IDs. This data covers 13 sections of the park system and approximately 540 acres. Over the course of the summer I visited each section at least twice. Unfortunately, there are 5 more sections that I was unable to get to at all.
We’re also hoping to make a couple more field trips to collect species that flower or fruit in the fall. This will give us a more complete picture of the species in the park. One of the hardest parts about studying plant species composition, is that you can’t go out in one day or even one season and get the full picture. You need to be able to see what’s there spring, summer, and fall and it’s hard to get the time and resources to do that completely. Still, I think we will have most species by the end.
Several people have asked me if I found anything exciting. This is a surprisingly difficult question for me to answer. Two exciting things can happen in a project like this – finding or relocating a population of a rare species or expanding the known range of any species. As far as I know I haven’t found any rare species, but this has been a very learn-as-I-go process, so I probably wouldn’t realize if I did find something rare. However, we do have at least one county record, Stachys tenuifolia, or smooth hedge-nettle, which had not previously been recorded in Henrico County.
It seems crazy in a time with so much instantly available information, but we still don’t know a remarkable amount about the distribution of plant species. Fun fact: there have been two complete floras (a giant list and key of plants) for Virginia – one published in 2012 and another published in 1762 in Latin. The opportunity to find new things, or in the case of the James River Park System make the first complete list of what’s there is one of the coolest parts of studying botany, but it is also a problem for management and conservation. How can we preserve or restore plant communities without knowing what used to be there or even what’s there now?
To finish up, we will turn these collections into species list for each park in the James River system and analyze the floristic quality of plant communities in the park to help prioritize and direct restoration and invasive species removal efforts. These lists will also provide a baseline species composition for future studies and for evaluating the success of restoration projects.