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The News & Observer

May 20, 2002

Botanist leads survey of state plants, trees

Author: Jane Stancill; Staff Writer

Edition: Final
Section: News
Page: B3

Index Terms:
On Campus
Robert K. Peet

Article Text:

Over the past 15 years, volunteer bands of botanists, naturalists and regular folks who love plants have scoured selected wilderness areas of North and South Carolina to inventory plants and trees in the region. About 60 people fan out across an area, measure off small plots and meticulously document the vegetation in each plot. Earlier this month, a survey group spent four days in the Lake Jocassee area of South Carolina.

Robert K. Peet, professor of biology at UNC-Chapel Hill, is one of the founders of the Carolinas Vegetation Survey, along with scientists from N.C. State. Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Peet.

Q. Describe the actual survey. What is it like out there in the wilderness?

A. We invite both professional botanists and amateurs from across the state, so it's really very exciting.

When you have many people looking across the landscape, you inevitably find things and discuss things that you normally wouldn't. You have a critical mass of mental activity and observation. It's been described both as "boot camp for botanists" and "botanical Woodstock."

Q. Why do you undertake this project?

A. From an academic perspective, we would like to know what the vegetation in the state is and how it varies across North Carolina. From a conservation perspective, we would like to identify both the kinds of places that should be within a conservation portfolio and identify some of the best representatives for preservation.

A third objective is monitoring and management, so that in the future someone could repeat our work and find out how the vegetation has changed. It would allow us to assess the impact on the vegetation of such factors as deer browsing and fire suppression, for example.

Fourth, there's a restoration component. If you want to restore an ecosystem and nurse it back to health, you need to know what you're shooting for. Our records will provide a target for restoration activities.

Q. Did you find anything new or different in the most recent survey?

A. The place we went, Wadakoe Mountain in South Carolina, is particularly unusual for its high nutrients. It truly is one of the most unusual places in South Carolina in terms of the number of species unique to the state. In the course of our four-day visit, we found three species that had never been seen in South Carolina before ... Wood Lily, Wood's Bunchflower, and Goldenseal.

Another unusual feature was the high diversity of some of the forests we studied. In one of the forest plots, we saw 135 species of plants within a 1,000-square-meter area (about a quarter-acre). That's exceptionally large. A typical hardwood forest around Raleigh might have something on the order 50 or 60 species.

Q. You've been doing the botanical survey for years. What kinds of things have you found?

A. I remember one species we found in the Uwharrie National Forest -- Plumed Goldenrod -- hadn't been seen there since it was first described in about 1900.

We've found quite a number of unusual species and new species. In addition, we have learned a great deal about natural vegetation and its diversity -- and something about the rate at which we are losing it.

We've found a lot more variation in the vegetation in the Carolinas. I'm sure we've got another 15 years ahead of us, but we'll keep going.

It's also depressing to come back to the places we've been and find them gone. Over half of the maritime forests we've visited have subsequently been developed and lost.

Volunteers are invited to join the next survey, July 6 through July 13, in the northwestern piedmont near Hanging Rock, Stone Mountain and Pilot Mountain state parks. To participate, send e-mail to Robert Peet at


Copyright 2002 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.
Record Number: gwf1h189