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Plants

Trillium pusillum

Green photosynthetic plants abound in West Virginia. These green ecological producers capture sunlight energy and convert it into chemical energy in the form of sugars. A sugar maple tree, for example, produces tremendous amounts of sap, which it stores in its roots, and uses it to produce green leaves, new twigs, fresh bark and roots. Because green plants produce more food than they themselves can utilize, consumers such as aphids, cardinals, pipevine swallowtail caterpillars, white tailed deer, and rabbits may eat the plants leaves to gain energy themselves. In a complex array of food chains and food webs, plants capture sunlight energy, animals eat them, other animals eat those animals, and the web of life in the ecosystems of West Virginia is supported. Plus, rooted plants affect their environment by holding soil from the eroding effects of rainfall. They provide shelter and cover and building materials for animals. Trees hold tremendous amounts of nutrients within their trunks, branches and twigs. As a result, those soil nutrients are not lost down-stream when spring rains come to the forest. Trees provide various degrees of shade, which in turn provides a variety of micro-habitats within the forest, permitting a great variety of plant species to thrive in dry, wet, or moderately moist situations. Of course, wild plants provide wood, food, and even medicines to the knowing harvester. The plants of West Virginia, then, are critical to our own survival as well as the survival of all the ecosystems of our state.

We need to conserve not only the ecological communities these plants live within, but the species of plants themselves. West Virginians can boast of a diversity of plant species. Vascular plants (usually larger plants: ferns, trees, wildflowers, vines, with sophisticated veins for transporting water, nutrients, and sugars) constitute most of the flora, but there are also numerous species of usually smaller, non-vascular plants (mosses, hornworts, liverworts, with less sophisticated means of moving materials throughout their bodies). There have been found in West Virginia to date 2474 vascular taxa, including subspecies and varieties. There are 2344 species of vascular plants recognized in our state, in 779 genera and 160 families. Table 1 highlights those families with the most number of genera or species in them. Three fourths of the vascular flora of West Virginia is native to the state, while the remainder is adventive, introduced, or exotic (Figure 2). While the non-vascular plant data is less complete than the vascular data, to date we have documented 375 species of mosses, liverworts and hornworts in our state.

Natural Heritage Programs are concerned about the diversity of life on our planet, documenting it, cataloging it, organizing data about it, all to the end of helping land use managers conserve it. We are concerned about biological diversity, or biodiversity. Biodiversity has been defined in a variety of ways, but one of the simplest definitions may be the best: "The variety of life in an area, including the variety of genes, species, plant and animal communities, ecosystems, and the interactions of these elements." (USDA, Forest Service, Fisheries, Wildlife and Range, Southern Region). Another good definition is this: "At the simplest level, biodiversity is the sum total of all the plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms in the world, or in a particular area; all of their individual variation; and all of the interactions between them. It is the set of living organisms that make up the fabric of the planet Earth and allow it to function as it does, by capturing energy from the sun and using it to drive all of life's processes ... making possible the sustainability of our planet" (Peter H. Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden).

Table 1. The fourteen largest families of West Virginia vascular plants (based upon number of genera and/or species)

Family

Genera

Species

Family

Genera

Species

Apiaceae

25

42

Lamiaceae

34

78

Asteraceae

82

267

Liliaceae

29

61

Brassicaceae

28

63

Orchidaceae

18

44

Caryophyllaceae

17

44

Poaceae

71

199

Cyperaceae

14

184

Ranunculaceae

18

51

Ericaceae

12

29

Rosaceae

24

164

Fabaceae

34

88

Scrophulariaceae

24

52



Plant ChartIt is difficult to determine whether a species is native to a given place or not. Ideally we would use such clues as fossil evidence, pollen profiles taken from samples of peat from acidic fens (bogs), or historical records from the earliest collectors. But these data are almost always impossible to gather for most species. We have to rely on some point in history as our benchmark, and in the preparation of a revised checklist of the vascular plants of our state, we use the temporal standard of pre-settlement of North America by Europeans. Because during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there was a great explosion of human exploration around the world, since that time, there has been an enormous increase in plant species being moved about the globe by human beings. We make the assumption here that although plant species have been moving about throughout their evolution, since post-Columbian times, North American ecosystems have been "invaded" by non-native species that did not slowly evolve with the native species. These invasive species often have become threats to native vegetation.


We have defined native, adventive,introduced and exotic in the following ways.
Firepink Pitcher Plant Northern Blue Iris Ox-Eye Daisy

Native: A species considered to have occurred in West Virginia prior to European settlement that still occurs naturally within the state. Examples include fire pink, sugar maple, and our state flower, the catawba Rhododendron.

Introduced: A species elsewhere native to North America north of Mexico which has been intentionally planted (by humans) in West Virginia and is now escaped and surviving without cultivation. Examples include pitcher plant, Norway spruce, and common daffodil.

Adventive: A species native elsewhere in North America north of Mexico which is not native to West Virginia, but is now growing in the state, arriving without known intentional introduction. Examples include northern blue iris, sawtooth sunflower, and pink turtlehead.

Exotic: A species occurring without cultivation in West Virginia that is not native to North America north of Mexico. Examples include ox-eye daisy, purple loosestrife, garlic mustard, and tree-of-heaven.


Knowledge about which species of plants are found in our state is best gathered by gathering specimens of the plants themselves. Plant collections have been made in West Virginia as early as 1872, when an unknown author collected downy alumroot (Heuchera pubescens) from Harpers Ferry. When specimens are taken from the field, pressed and dried between layers of newspaper and cardboard, identified, mounted on archival paper, and labeled with notes about location, habitat, associated species, the date collected, the county in which it was collected, etc., they become extremely valuable vouchers of which plants have been found growing in our state. Specimens are stored in museums of dried plants called herbaria, and the three largest collections are located at West Virginia University, Morgantown (WVA), Marshall University, Huntington (MUHW), and West Virginia Wesleyan, Buckhannon (WVW). These herbaria contain thousands of vouchers that form the basis of our known history of the plant life in our state, and provide a way to document the changes in the flora that are taking place.

The earliest specimen records of vascular plants recorded for West Virginia of which we are aware can be found at WVA. It is downy alumroot (Heuchera pubescens) and was collected in June of 1872 by an unknown collector near Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County. The next oldest record can be found at the herbarium of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (CM), which was collected by G. Guttenberg on May 12, 1877 from near Bethany in Brooke County, West Virginia. It is a specimen of fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis).

The flora of West Virginia is not only composed of vascular plants, however, and our state herbaria also house specimens of mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. These are collectively often referred to as bryophytes. These tiny plants are an important natural resource for West Virginia. West Virginia's temperate climate and rugged topography favor bryophyte growth. Travel to Gaudineer Knob (elevation 4439 ft.) and you will find that bryophytes account for more than half of the ground cover in its red spruce forest. Like ecosystems throughout the world, bryophytes play important roles in the cycling of water and nutrients in ecosystems of our state. In the higher elevation bogs also called acidic fens, peat moss (Sphagnum spp.) holds water, increases acidity, and holds nutrients, creating conditions for the development of these unusual wetlands. Because of Sphagnumand Polytrichum mosses' effects on the fens, numerous unusual vascular plants thrive there, including bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia var. glaucophylla), sundews (Drosera rotundifolia), and large and small cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon and V. oxycoccus.). In cool forests, mossy substrates (including nurse logs) often favor conifer seedling establishment, thereby affecting forest regeneration and succession.

In cooperation with herbaria throughout the state and the region, and the Flora West Virginia Committee, the West Virginia Natural Heritage Program (WVHP) has compiled a checklist and atlas of the vascular flora of the state. WVHP has also worked with Dr. Sue Studlar at West Virginia University to capture voucher data for bryophytes, and to create an annotated checklist of the hornworts, liverworts, and mosses of the state. With the West Virginia Native Plant Society, we've created a checklist of the invasive vascular plants of our state, determining which aggressive plant species pose threats to natural areas of our state.. With all this specimen label data, data gathered by Heritage and academic botanists, and data gathered from the scientific literature, WVHP has determined that 438 vascular and non-vascular plants are rare enough in our state to warrant tracking them. That is, we have mapped on topographic maps where these rare plant species occur in our state, taking notes about the ecology, topography, substrate and threats associated with each site. As more and more data is gathered, rare plant elements can be sorted and categorized or ranked according to three criteria: the species' abundance in the state, the degree of threat to their survival they experience, and to what degree one can detect a trend toward decline in survival. The five ranks of rare plant (and animal) elements are presented in Table 2.

Table 2. Scale From 1-5 of Rarity of Occurrence and Threat of Decline

S1: 5 or fewer documented occurrences ... Extremely rare and critically imperiled, or especially vulnerable to extirpation.

S2: 6 to 20 documented occurrences ... Very rare and imperiled, or vulnerable to extirpation.

S3: 21 to 100 documented occurrences ... May be somewhat vulnerable to extirpation.

S4: more than 100 occurrences ... common and apparently secure

S5: Very common and demonstrably secure.

The information gathered by WVHP feeds a larger database operated by Nature Serve, a non-profit association of all the natural heritage programs of the United States and Conservation Data Centers elsewhere throughout this hemisphere. Information on the state status of each rare plant element helps determine the national and global rank for these and other species. The national and global ranks, along with habitat and distribution data helps conservation organizations (such as The Nature Conservancy) and state, provincial, and federal governments to make informed decisions about how well the rare species are doing and how we might conserve them. For further information about Nature Serve and the status of rare plant species, please go to http://natureserve.org/.


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