Treasures of ecology

Jonathan R. Veit

For the first time, the ecological history of the Carolinas and Georgia is virtually an open book. Botanica Caroliniana, a project led by a team from Clemson and Furman University, has created an online database of high-resolution images showing plant specimens collected centuries ago by several legendary naturalists, including Mark Catesby, John and William Bartram, and John Lawson.


Before now, the only way to study the specimens was to travel to London, where they reside in the Sloane Herbarium of the Natural History Museum.

The team began its work last year with an analysis of the complete collections of Mark Catesby, the first naturalist to study in depth the habitat of the low country and Piedmont areas of the Carolinas. He arrived from England in 1722 and spent the next four years exploring and collecting the botanical wonders of a region largely untouched by European settlers.

“These specimens provide insight into the nature of the flora of the Carolinas and Georgia prior to extensive modification by European immigrants,” says Amy Hackney Blackwell, a research associate at the South Carolina Botanical Garden.

A century before Audubon

Catesby’s specimens became the basis for his illustrated two-volume book, Natural History of Carolina, Florida and The Bahama Islands, completed in 1743. His paintings and etchings of birds and plants captured the biological diversity of North America one hundred years before the publication of John James Audubon’s The Birds of North America.

“While much has been learned from Catesby’s beautiful and meticulous illustrations, primary sources are the holy grail of research,” Blackwell says. “Through Botanica Caroliniana researchers can now view in detail the original specimens without traveling to London and use this primary source material to do taxonomic work these naturalists did not have the resources to do themselves at the time.”

Blackwell is a member of a team of researchers that includes Clemson plant scientist and South Carolina Botanical Garden director Patrick McMillan, host of the Emmy award-winning nature program Expeditions with Patrick McMillan, and Furman University classics professor Christopher Blackwell. The Botanica Caroliniana team deploys technology and techniques used by Furman’s classics department for digitizing ancient manuscripts.

Botanica Caroliniana has already inspired new insights. Catesby’s specimens, for example, show that he visited a range of diverse habitats, and his notations establish his interest in the medicinal and economic value of plants to Native Americans as well as Europeans. The specimens also include some surprises.

“Catesby collected specimens of a type of catalpa that we previously thought was only native well south of the Carolinas,” Blackwell says. “Catesby’s collections also contain some plants obviously introduced by Europeans, such as catnip and indigo, which shows just how quickly species can move and establish themselves in new environments.”

Ecology, past and present

In June, the Botanica Caroliniana team visited London to digitize specimens collected by Joseph Lord. The specimens, collected in 1704, are the oldest the team has digitized. Lord helped found the town of Dorchester, South Carolina, and collected plant specimens along the Ashley River. Blackwell and McMillan are identifying the Lord specimens and plan to publish their findings soon.

“Lord wrote very detailed notes on the plants he collected, and they’ve been very helpful as we identify specimens that are over three hundred years old,” Blackwell says. “He collected some plants that are now endangered, such as American chaffseed. He and Catesby both collected a native orchid, which is now virtually extirpated from South Carolina.”

McMillan is in the beginning stages of producing an episode of Expeditions focusing on what Catesby’s work reveals about the historic ecology of South Carolina and how human interaction with the landscape has changed ecosystems over the centuries.

“Catesby can help us to understand the ecological processes and dynamics that existed, such as the importance of fire, especially human-generated fire in the landscape. Human choices and actions have always been a vital factor in determining the character of the world around us. To understand today’s ecology, we must consider the past,” McMillan says.

 

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Images from Bartram and Mark Catesby in this issue were photographed by Amy Hackney Blackwell, Patrick McMillan, and Christopher Blackwell in November of 2011 at the Sloane Herbarium of the Natural History Museum, London, in collaboration with Mark Spencer, curator. All images are licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 

Patrick McMillan is a Clemson plant scientist, director of the South Carolina Botanical Garden, and host of the television program, Expeditions with Patrick McMillan. Christopher W. Blackwell is the Louis G. Forgione University Professor of Classics at Furman University. Amy Hackney Blackwell is a research associate at the South Carolina Botanical Garden. Jonathan Veit is a public information coordinator in the School of Agricultural, Forest, and Environmental Sciences.

Browse Botanica Caroliniana.

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