The Perennial Task of Cataloging Flora Blooms Once Again Exhaustive Job of Listing the Plants of North America Has Been an Off-and-On Project Several Times in the Past

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COLLECTING and cataloging of plants native to North America began in the late 17th century, but the first truly exhaustive listing of the continent's plant life - everything from giant redwoods to lowly mosses - is only happening now. The first two volumes of the 14-volume "Flora of North America" (Oxford University Press, $75 per book) appeared this fall.

The project had started and stalled a number of times in the past, says Nancy Morin, assistant director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. She is the convening editor of the "flora," the term used for a systematic listing of the plants found in a region.

Dr. Morin says that Harvard University botanist Asa Gray attempted to list all the plants of North America in the 19th century, when the field work and collecting was "hot and heavy." Professor Gray and his colleagues became overwhelmed by the task, she says. The cataloging work instead shifted toward more easily contained regional and state floras.

Then in 1965, botanists in the United States realized that their colleagues in Europe and the Soviet Union were plunging ahead with the task of cataloging the plants of their regions.

"Why not us?" the Americans asked themselves. A committee was organized and some funding was lined up, but the effort tailed off in a few years and was suspended in 1972.

Couldn't the various regional floras have been pieced into a work on the whole continent? Those volumes talked about "different kinds of things," explains Morin. Without an overall work consistently organized, "you can't really get the picture of a particular group of plants as it occurs throughout the continent," she says.

And such a work is of more than scholarly interest. A variety of specialists - foresters, conservationists, agricultural researchers, and pharmacists, to name a few - will put the new flora to immediate use.

People interested in protecting endangered plants will have at their fingertips a thorough discussion of each species' range and the history of its discovery. Pharmaceutical companies that have found interesting chemical compounds in one species will be able to quickly identify related plants for further research.

Chris Topik, botany program leader at the US Forest Service in Washington, says the new flora will be invaluable as "a central authoritative source" on the range and distribution of plant species.

A single comprehensive guide will clear up ambiguities, he adds, "so we all call the same species by the same name." The Forest Service has already purchased numerous copies of the first two volumes. Mr. Topik describes how Volume 2 helped him get immediate data on the Port Orford cedar, a tree native to the southern Oregon and northern California coasts that has a restricted range and needs protection.

The revived flora effort dates from 1982, when a number of botanists decided to give the project "another shot," as Morin puts it. The Missouri Botanical Garden, one of the largest outposts of botanical research in the world, was chosen as the organizational center.

This time, the work seemed to have plenty of momentum, says Morin. Heightened interest in biological diversity and environmental protection helped, as have such related projects as the biological survey of the US recently initiated by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. …