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Capturing the Natural World

A glass display case holding a copy of, and some images from, the Flora Virginica

The University Libraries’ Special Collections is proud to host Flora Virginica until March 16. In partnership with Virginia Tech’s Massey Herbarium, this display brings together the comprehensive history and imagery of Virginian botany to celebrate the Herbarium’s ongoing research and updated compendium. We would like to give a warm thanks to the Flora of Virginia Project for lending us an original (1762) and reproduced (1946) Flora Virginica as well as the Garden Club of Virginia for lending us two lithographs depicting Virginia’s biodiversity.

The Flora Virginica book

Before Flora Virginica, there was no comprehensive listing of Virginian plant species. In response, many natural philosophers engaged in the work of cataloging the various species found in Virginia and the other American colonies. John Clayton, clerk of Gloucester County, Virginia, studied botany as a hobby and, throughout the mid 1700s, gathered various specimens of Virginian flora and fauna.

His extensive experience with Virginian specimens brought him to the attention of other natural philosophers including Mark Catesby, Johannes Fredericus Gronovius, and Carl Linneas. Clayton provided Catesby with several specimens included in Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, from which two lithographs are featured in the Special Collections display: The Summer Red-Bird, the Western Plane Tree (reprinted 1771) and The Red Start, the Black Walnut (reprinted 1771).

Clayton’s collaboration with Dutch botanist Johannes Fredericus Gronovius included sending him numerous Virginian herbs, fruits, and trees along with descriptions using the Linnaean classification system, still under development. Without Clayton’s consent, Gronovius published the work in the Netherlands, first as two separate books and then the combined edition in 1762. To this day, controversy surrounds the document’s true authorship.

Regardless, this combined edition makes Flora Virginica as we know it today: an extensive inventory of flora and fauna species, with the combined edition including Linnaean classifications. This work became the first comprehensive compendium of Virginia flora, remaining the only comprehensive work on this topic for more than 200 years until the new Flora of Virginia was published in 2012.

In addition to the materials on display in Special Collections, three copies of the 1946 reproduction of Flora Virginica and an original of Catesby’s History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754) are permanent parts of Special Collections’ holdings.

We would like to extend special thanks to the Flora of Virginia Project Executive Director Bland Crowder, the Garden Club of Virginia Executive Director Lynn McCashin, and the Massey Herbarium’s faculty and students for their assistance with this exhibit.

Written by Alec Masella