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,"
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
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
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
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. …