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Wildflowers & Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain



 From articles written and published by the first author in local newspapers over the past 7 years, a book has been created about local wildflowers and grasses. The second author Dr. Gustavus Hall, Professor Emeritus, College of William and Mary, re-wrote portions of the text to ensure botanical accuracy.  Louise Menges, Editor, maintained the photo inventory, selected appropriate images for each page, and designed the layout of each page.
Sponsored by the John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, many plants included are native to the Coastal Plain of Virginia, but some are introduced from other areas in the U.S. and from other countries. Included are non-woody plants often seen along roadsides, in meadows, gardens and lawns. Many are weedy, with small flowers, not usually seen in field guides. Also included are grasses commonly seen in the Virginia’s Coastal Plain.
The plants included here occur in most counties of the Coastal Plain of Virginia, and some may be found throughout the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains from Cape Cod to Mexico. Originally the book was conceived to include only those plants native to the Coastal Plain. However, in decades of field work, the authors have observed very conspicuous non-native (introduced) plants displacing natives in many locations.  These familiar, introduced plants are in the book, to help users distinguish desirable native plants from unwanted species.
The plants are arranged in the book by flower color (white, yellow, orange, red, pink, blue, violet, green, brown), indicated by a colored rectangle on the upper edge of the page. The grasses and grass-like plants (tan rectangle) are in the last section of the book. Within each color group the plants are arranged alphabetically by families. Photographs on each page show the most prominent feature of each plant, usually the flower.
Text follows the photographs with user-friendly descriptions of the plant’s characteristics, habitat, range and growing conditions, and interesting facts about uses in folk medicine, by the Native Americans, and origins of the plant’s names.Claytonia virginica low res-page-001
All photographs were contributed by members of local chapters of the Virginia Native Plant Society: Ellis Squires from the Northern Neck Chapter; and from the local John Clayton Chapter, Teta Kain, Seig Kopinitz, Louise Menges, Kathi Mestayer, Phillip Merritt, and Jan Newton; and Felice Bond from the Historic Rivers Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists.
Dr. Donna Ware, retired Herbarium Curator, College of William and Mary has written the Preface, the book was peer-reviewed by Dr. John Hayden, Botanist, University of Richmond, and Bland Crowder, Editor of the Flora of Virginia, has done the copy editing.
Additional information about the plants can be found in the “Further Reading” section of the book which follows the list of references the authors have used throughout. For readers wishing more information about each plant featured within, the Flora of Virginia (2012) is the definitive resource for technical botanical information.
On the right is a sample page from the book, featuring Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), signature plant of the John Clayton Chapter. On the book’s cover is the same plant, contributed by Gary Fleming, Vegetation Ecologist, Virginia Natural Heritage Program.

Red Cardinal Flower

All is not what it seems.  Each flower consists of 5 petals, 3 pointing downward and two outstretched forming an upper lip.  Between these 5 petals emerges another tube, the end of which has gray-white dots which are the sex organs.  As the flower opens, they are male first, then after the pollen is gone from the anthers, the same flower extends a tube with a fuzzy reddish knob on the end, that’s the female flower .. who knew?

The first photo is of the male flower with a tuft of white hairs.  When they are pushed back, pollen is released.  The second photo shows the female flower with a reddish style projecting from the end of the male flower.   The style ends in a knob with a rough surface to receive pollen.

Male Flower Femalecrcp

Winter Groundcover


Photographed in January, Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) retains its green leaves.  The yellow flowers are one of the first plants to bloom in the spring, often colonies of them are seen in the swamps and marshes in early March.  When the tall stems with flowers wither, the heart-shaped leaves remain as groundcover throughout most of the year.


Swamp Sunflower in the snow

Also known as Narrowleaf Sunflower by the narrow, strap-like leaves, generally less than ½ wide.  Blooming August-October, the plant is covered with bright yellow flowers, achieving a bushy form.  This perennial grows in swamps and other moist places, mostly near the coast in the southeastern counties of Virginia.  With good conditions, the stems are over 6 feet tall – the height can be controlled by cutting the tops of the plant 12 inches or so in early spring.  Flowering will occur, but the plant will be shorter.

This plant is featured on page 87 in “Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain”

Photographed in the Williamsburg Botanical  Garden in January.  The summer photo is by Jan Newton.

Swp Sunflwr swamp_sunflwr_close3_byjan10_12_07

Orange Grasses

Clumps of tawny-orange grasses are seen all winter along the roadsides – Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) usually indicates poor soil, growing in abandoned fields and disturbed, dry soil.  It is easily confused with Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), which has bent bristles on each seed, while the bristles on the seeds of Broomsedge are straight.  Both species grow together, and are labeled, in the Grass Garden.




Broomsedge adds color to the winter landscape with clumps of reddish-orange stems and leaves, striking when sunlight catches the white, fuzzy seedheads.  In the spring this perennial grass forms a stiff clump of light green stems 3 feet tall.  Tufts of paired flowers are held against the stem by leafy bracts, opening in late fall.  Attached to each seed is a straight bristle surrounded by silvery hairs, allowing distribution by the wind. Splitbeard Bluestem, A. ternarius, is similar a similar grass, but the flowers are obviously paired, each seed with a bent bristle, not straight.

This grass grows in open, sunny locations on dry soil, preferably loose, sandy, and moist sites such as abandoned fields, roadsides and clearings.  While the primary native meadow grass in the northeast, the presence of Broomsedge often indicates poor soil, low in phosphorus, that has been overgrazed and nutrient-poor.  Occurring in every county of Virginia, it is found throughout the eastern states, from Massachusetts to Ohio, Missouri and Kansas, south to Florida and Texas.  Requiring low amounts of water, the grass can be used for residential landscaping and golf courses.

The Zabulon skipper is an eastern butterfly, which has been sighted in the Williamsburg area.  Broomsedge is a nectar source and larval host for this butterfly and others.  Small birds eat the seeds in winter when other food supplies are limited, and the grass provides cover for ground nesting birds such as quail and turkeys.