The University Record, December 10, 2001

Flora book collection bursts with Mexican blooms

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

The book that William Anderson has labored over for much of the past year will be out of date as soon as it’s published this month. And that, he insists, is a good thing.

“It means our book is working,” explains Anderson, a professor of botany and curator of vascular plants for the U-M Herbarium. The book, volume 3 of Flora Novo-Galiciana, describes 22 families of plants native to a large area of western Mexico.

Because plant life in the area is richly diverse but poorly studied, Anderson expects that people who use the Flora to identify plants may find that some aren’t in the book.

“The point is that we’re making the knowledge of plants in the area accessible to people so that they can key things out and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a species that’s not in your book,’” says Anderson. “When that happens, I’m not disappointed; I’m delighted.”

He can say that because he sees the work as a first attempt—a foundation on which future generations of botanists can build. The book is the eighth installment in a collection that eventually will comprise 17 volumes—the life’s work of U-M botany professor emeritus Rogers McVaugh, 92, who started the project some 50 years ago and continues to work on it from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Anderson is a relative newcomer to the project, having spent a mere quarter century or so as its editor.

“It’s the kind of very ambitious, long-term project that can only be done in a place like this, with a big research collection and an incredible library,” says Anderson. He got involved with the Flora project early in his U-M career, just as McVaugh was about to retire. Anderson’s motivation, he says, was “self-defense.” McVaugh had been cranking out manuscripts for decades, but hadn’t published a single page. Anderson, fearing that he would inherit the project if McVaugh were to die, offered to edit the flora while McVaugh continued working on it. The U-M Press published the first four volumes, but then Anderson taught himself to use PageMaker and Photoshop and added publishing to his list of responsibilities, along with editing and contributing sections on his own specialty, the Malpighiaceae—a family that includes a number of climbing, vine-like plants.

Attempts to catalog Mexico’s lush plant life date back well beyond Anderson’s, or even McVaugh’s, efforts. The book’s opening illustrations, a color plate of the cucumber-like chayote plant, was painted by Spanish explorers sent to Mexico to catalog its flora around 1800.

“There’s historical continuity to the project,” says Anderson. “These early explorers were doing a floristic survey of Mexico for the Spanish king, and we’re continuing the work they started, 200-plus years later.”

Most of the book’s 129 line drawings were done by Karin Douthit, a botanical illustrator who has been drawing plants for the Herbarium since 1969. Douthit works from pressed, dried specimens to create remarkably lifelike renderings.

“And they’re technically accurate,” adds Anderson. He knows because he runs the drawings through the book’s identification keys, just as he would a real specimen. Anderson double-checks the book’s plant descriptions the same way.

His attention to accuracy should please even the most exacting botanist, bent on identifying a rare plant. But Anderson sees even wider uses for the flora.

“Anyone who has anything to do with the plants of western Mexico—ecologists, zoologists, people who are just interested in plants or who use them or are dependent on them—all need a Flora to find out what they are,” he says.

One of the most important uses could be in conservations, Anderson adds.

“Since I first went to Mexico in the middle 60s, the destruction has been astonishing. Areas that were beautiful woodlands where we used to camp have now more or less been destroyed,” he says. “It’s just not possible to save everything; all we can do is save pieces of the native vegetation. That raises the question of which pieces should we save? A reference like this is the most useful way to assess the flora in terms of the number of species that are endemic or rare in a particular area or where the vegetation is the least disturbed. I think conservationists particularly appreciate a flora, both as a guide to what is worth saving and also as ammunition in making their argument.”