At the age of 3 ½, Arthur V. Gilman learned the name of his first Vermont wild flower, a yellow Colt's-foot growing in a ditch near his parents' home. Colt’s foot is one of the first plants I recognize in the spring along the back roads of the Green Mountains.
As he was growing up in Marshfield, Vermont, Gilman's family spent summers at their camp on Peacham Pond. He spent days in the woods and the surrounding environment. Gilman remembers that even before he started school, he liked to go out every day and see the wild flowers. The family also had a large garden.
After graduating from Brown University, Gilman worked for 11 years at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn. where he was responsible for propagating 800 varieties of plants and coordinating their production schedule.
For the past 60 years, Gilman learned the names of more than 2,100 plants growing in the wild in Vermont. Gilman's book is the fifth "Flora of Vermont." The first was published in 1900, with later editions in 1915 and 1937. In 1969, Frank Seymour published a version of the book, the most recent volume prior to Gilman's publication.
Gilman answered questions from the Burlington Free Press from writer Dorothy Pellett. The first question was, who do you envision as the primary readers and users of the book? “I wrote the book with avid plant 'geeks' in mind, so I tried to make it as scientifically correct, up-to-date, and even cutting-edge as possible. But on the other hand, I wanted to make it interesting for the 'average Vermonter,' so I tried to put in a lot of information that someone who is really interested in what they see around them would relate to.”
When did you become aware of the need for a new version of "Flora of Vermont"? “Frank Seymour's 1969 "Flora of Vermont" was pretty much out of date within 20 years or so, but it was probably around the year 2000 that I felt someone should update it. I quickly realized that a simple update would not be sufficient, so I spent about 10 years researching and writing a thorough revision.”
In your work with William Countryman Environmental Assessment and Planning, you searched for rare, threatened and endangered species of plants and wildlife. What was the purpose of the searches? “We searched then, as I still do in my business, Gilman & Briggs Environmental, for the purposes of conservation planning associated with development. Vermont's Endangered Species Law protects certain plants and others may be protected in Act 250 permits, PSB (Public Service Board) Certificates of Public Good, and other means.”
Did the searches take you into places where some plants had previously been unknown and uncategorized? “Yes, I have inspected many tracts of land, habitats, and areas where I have found populations of rare plants that were previously unknown. Furthermore, I have taken an interest in all plants, not just rare ones, so I have traced the spread of various weeds, invasive species, and the like. Of course, many others have also done this, and the book reflects the efforts of many, many people.”
Would you share a brief story about incidents in the development of the book? “Perhaps my favorite incident was finally identifying, and documenting, a rose that I had known informally in the towns of Cabot and Peacham for many years. I had never studied roses very closely and when I tried to pin it down for the book, I was unable to do so with available North American references.”
“So I sent away to the Botanical Society of the British Isles for their "Handbook of Roses," and quickly identified this rose, which is thoroughly naturalized in Caledonia County and nearby — but not known anywhere else in North America — as Rosa sherardii ("Sherard's downy rose"), a species that is common in the British Isles, especially northward. Since the town of Ryegate was settled directly from Scotland, I surmise it was brought by those early settlers. There is a nice shrub of R. sherardii at the Ryegate Town House in Ryegate Center. It is Sherard's Downey Rose (Rosa sherardii).”
You have mentioned that 2,100 kinds of plants are in the book. Are you referring only to those found in the wild and not to any grown strictly in gardens? “There are about 1,400 plants that are native to Vermont, and another 700 that are not native but are weeds of gardens and agriculture, or found along roadsides, or even in natural areas. The book includes only those that have been found outside of cultivation.”
What are some of the advances in taxonomy — the classification of plants — that have been developed in the last 40 years? “There were two main advances. First, the discovery of DNA and the ability of plant researchers to clarify the identities and evolutionary relationships of plants, one to another. The second is the application of powerful computerized analyses. Together, these advances have explained many obscure points, especially about some of the most peculiar plants. For example, we now know that riverweed (Podostemum), a small aquatic species that lives attached to rocks submerged in fast water of rivers, is most closely related to St. John's-wort (Hypericum), the common (and weedy) herb.”
Gilman documents 2,100 plant species found in Vermont. He describes vascular plants, meaning it does not include others like moss and algae. You could think of vascular plants as having veins to conduct water and nutrients throughout the plant: veins known to botanists as xylem, carrying water, and phloem, conducting food. The term vascular includes plants that reproduce by seeds and those that bear spores, such as ferns.
State botanist Bob Popp of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife praised "New Flora of Vermont." "Arthur's book contains a wealth of information about the natural history, habitat, distribution and many other interesting tidbits of information that are not typically found in the standard plant manual," he said. Popp said the department collaborated with Gilman by providing access to the state Natural Diversity Program rare plant database, and specimens of rare species for verification.
Gilman also backed up his field research with study of specimens at the Pringle Herbarium of the University of Vermont. The herbarium contains mounted dried plant specimens that are a resource for botanists nationally and internationally.
During his career, Gilman has discovered new species in Vermont, and worked on conservation plans for the New England Plant Conservation Program. He has written many articles for botanical publications, including journals of the New England Botanical Club and the American Fern Society.
And the Colt's-foot that Gilman learned years ago from his mother? It still brightens early spring roadsides and stream banks over most of Vermont. It's called Tusselago farfara as well as colt's-foot in "New Flora of Vermont."
The Vermont Book of Plants, Dorothy Pellett, Burlington Free Press, March 27, 2017