The first Caucasians to describe the plants of West Virginia traveled Indian trails, rivers, and mountaintops from the mid-1700s through the mid-1800s. Prominent botanists who explored early West Virginia included Peter Kalm, John Fraser, John Clayton, Frederick Pursh, Andre Michaux, Matthias Kin, Benjamin Barton, Constantine Rafinesque, and Thomas Nuttall. Asa Gray, who wrote the famous Gray’s Manual of Botany, collected plants from Harpers Ferry to Tucker County, across Cheat Mountain and southward through the Greenbrier Valley and Mercer County, on his way to North Carolina in 1843.
Land speculators and surveyors such as George Washington, Daniel Boone, and Christopher Gist described trees and plants of commercial importance. Meshach Browning’s book, Forty-four Years of the Life of a Hunter, describes the numerous glades of western Maryland and present West Virginia. Thomas Lewis, surveyor on the famous Fairfax Line of 1746, described the laurel swamp and huge spruce forests of Canaan Valley.
Charles F. Millspaugh was employed by West Virginia University from 1889 to 1894 to inventory botany resources and study agricultural weeds. His 1913 book, The Living Flora of West Virginia, described 3,411 plants collected by him and others. Millspaugh was a close friend of Lawrence Nuttall, a New River coal operator, who collected nearly 1,000 flowering plant species near Nuttallburg and Keeneys Creek.
John Sheldon taught botany at WVU from 1903 to 1919 and made extensive plant collections. Perry D. Strausbaugh taught biology and botany at WVU from 1923 to 1948. He is noted for re-establishing the WVU herbarium, initiating summer botanical expeditions for students in all corners of the state, and as an excellent teacher. Among his accomplished students were Russell Brown, Elizabeth Bartholomew, and Weldon Boone. Boone completed a floristic study of Summers County and wrote a book titled A History of Botany in West Virginia in 1965. Bartholomew was the unofficial botanical ambassador for WVU, curator of the herbarium as it grew to 100,000 specimens, and longtime secretary of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Club.
Strausbaugh’s career is closely entwined with that of Earl L. Core, one of his first students. They jointly wrote Flora of West Virginia, published in four parts from 1952 to 1964. This 1,079-page book listed nearly 2,000 flowering plants and ferns with descriptions, ranges, identification keys, and illustrations. Now a West Virginia classic, it was judged by many as the best flora book in the United States when it was published.
Core also was an excellent teacher. His students included Melvin Brown, William Lunk, Roland Guthrie, William Gillespie, and Ronald Fortney. Lunk produced many of the illustrations in Strausbaugh and Core’s Flora of West Virginia. Gillespie wrote booklets on edible and poisonous plants of West Virginia and a book on the plant fossils of West Virginia. Dorothy Music and Dana Evans completed flora studies in the rugged terrain of southern West Virginia. Violet Phillips taught botany at West Virginia Institute of Technology during the 1970s and 1980s, following her doctoral studies of plants found along New River.
Core organized the Southern Appalachian Botanical Club in 1936, serving as its president and editor of its journal, Castanea. He spearheaded efforts in field botany through the establishment of Core Arboretum on the WVU campus and the Terra Alta Biological Station in Preston County. As biology department chairman at WVU from 1948 to 1967 he created one of the nation’s leading botany programs. Faculty members included Jesse Clovis, Charles Baer, Nelle Ammons, Roland Guthrie, Harold Bennett, and Roy Clarkson. Clarkson taught botany from the 1960s to the 1980s, was herbarium curator, completed his doctoral studies of the Monongahela National Forest, and wrote extensively. His book, Tumult on the Mountains (1964), is an excellent treatise on timbering the virgin forests during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Kenneth Carvell and Robert L. Smith taught botany to their forestry students at WVU from the 1960s to the 1980s while writing many popular articles for newspapers and for Wonderful West Virginia magazine. William Grafton completed studies of the vegetation on New River while working for the WVU Extension Service. Later he collected several thousand plants for the herbarium from all parts of the state and was active in leading nature tours.
Marshall University started botany classes in 1890. Marshall’s prominent botany teachers have included H. C. Darlington, Lewis Plymale, Donald Cox, Howard Mills, James Gillespie, Dan Evans, and Frank Gilliam. Darlington completed his doctoral dissertation on Cranberry Glades and loved to take people on nature tours of the boardwalk there. Frank Albert taught from 1927 to 1942 and made extensive collections that are now in the Marshall and WVU herbariums. The professors and their graduate students added greatly to the knowledge of the Ohio, Kanawha, and New River valleys, and southwestern West Virginia.
Other colleges left their marks as well. Meade McNeil of Concord College (now Concord University) explored southeastern West Virginia, taught botany for three decades, and helped coordinate the WVU botanical expeditions with Earl Core. George Rossbach of West Virginia Wesleyan was an avid plant collector and enthusiastic teacher. His herbarium has been added to by Kathy Gregg, who has contributed several research studies on orchids of West Virginia. Steve Stephenson of Fairmont State University has contributed ecological studies of forest types, collected and written about fungi of the state, and authored the book, Upland Forests of West Virginia.
The Brooks family of French Creek in Upshur County produced four noted naturalists, including the brothers, Fred, A. B., and Earle. Fred worked primarily as an entomologist with the state and federal governments. His popular articles in the West Virginia Review created a wide following. A. B. is revered as the highly capable naturalist at Oglebay Park from 1928 to 1942. He wrote Forestry and Wood Industries (1911), the best historical account of our virgin forests. The Brooks Bird Clubs are named for A. B. Brooks. Earle Brooks wrote many articles on folklore and birds. Maurice Brooks (son of Fred) traveled extensively with his father and uncles to develop his knowledge of birds, salamanders, orchids, and ferns. His observations and research culminated in 37 years as a captivating teacher at WVU and the popular 1965 book, The Appalachians.
Contemporary botanists from nearby states have explored the Mountain State and left many noteworthy contributions. They included Per Axel Rydberg, who studied the high mountains such as Spruce Knob, Snowy, and North Fork mountains in the 1920s. Edgar Wherry, who botanized eastern West Virginia in the 1930s, made important finds about ferns and shale barren habitats. A. Allard spent vacations in Canaan Valley and nearby mountains during the 1940s, studying plant ecology and collecting plants. Allison Cusick specialized in sedges but has collected many county and state records from 1970 through the present, especially along the upper Ohio River. Tom Wieboldt has been a prolific collector in the southeastern counties since the 1980s. Larry Morse of the Nature Conservancy has studied plants of the Eastern Panhandle and higher mountains since the 1980s.
Botany has attracted the interest of many amateurs. Among them were Lawrence Nuttall, E. E. Hutton, Osbra Eye, and Fred Brooks. Joseph Harned, a pharmacist in Oakland, Maryland, explored the vegetation of western Maryland and adjacent West Virginia. His Wild Flowers of the Alleghanies was published in 1931. Hannibal Davis and his wife, Tyreeca, collected numerous plants throughout West Virginia and are recognized as the authorities on the genus Rubus, which includes blackberries and dewberries. Homer Duppstadt, a preacher from Pennsylvania, spent many days in the 1980s studying plants at the WVU herbarium. J. Lawrence Smith, a Methodist preacher, wrote The Potomac Naturalist in 1968 and other books, as well as numerous articles and newspaper columns.
The Nature Conservancy has become a major player in botany since the 1970s. Early presidents of the state chapter included Core, WVU ecologist Charles Baer, and Eleanor Bush, who contributed to the efforts to protect botanical areas such as Cranesville Swamp, Dolly Sods, Rock Dome, North Fork Mountain, and Slaty Mountain. Professional staff has included Frank Pelurie, Paul Trianosky, and Rodney Bartgis. Bartgis studied Altona-Piedmont Marsh in Jefferson County and has explored and written articles on the botanical treasures of the Eastern Panhandle during the 1980s and 1990s.
After more than a century of organized work, challenges still remain for amateurs and professionals to explore and research the botanical resources of West Virginia. Will individuals step forward from the present generation to carry the lofty mantle of Millspaugh, Core, Davis, and Nuttall?
This Article was written by William N. Grafton
Last Revised on October 31, 2010
Cite This Article
Grafton, William N. "Botany." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 31 October 2010. Web. 25 April 2017.