The Recovery Period of Kentucky Botany (1948-Present)

(Excerpts from Plant Life of Kentucky by Dr. Ronald L. Jones)

By the early 1950's, McFarland and McInteer had started a new herbarium in the Funkhouser Building, rounding up unmounted and mounted specimens that had been stored elsewhere and even finding a small set of Short’s specimens. Some sets of specimens were out on loan and were thus saved from destruction. Mary Wharton provided additional duplicates of her collections. McFarland and McInteer began to collect anew, but understandably it must have been very disheartening, for they were nearing retirement and their many plans for the Kentucky flora would go unfinished. McFarland retired in 1951, and McInteer in 1957.

During this period the focus of field botanical work in the state shifted first to the University of Louisville, then, back to the University of Kentucky and, later, to the regional universities and colleges.

Percy Albert Davies(1896-1961) and Floristic Activities at the University of Louisville

Percy Albert DaviesThe history of the University of Louisville Herbarium is primarily associated with the career of P.A. Davies, who arrived at the University of Louisville in 1926 and remained there until his death. A small herbarium had been initiated by H.B. Lovell and other faculty members during the 1930’s, but it was not until the late 1940’s and 1950’s that Davies began to play a more active role, supervising graduate student projects and publishing several papers. This high level of activity, involving Davies, Lovell, and other faculty and graduate students, continued until the early 1960’s.

Davies was particularly interested in the life of Charles W. Short, and in Short’s botanical namesake, Shortia galacifolia, on which he published a number of articles. At the time of his death in 1961 he was actively working on a biography of Short and on further accounts of Shortia (Skaggs 1982).

Later botanical faculty, staff, and students at the University of Louisville herbarium included Arland Hotchkiss, William S. Davis, and Max E. Medley. The collection currently contains about 30,000 specimens.

He assembled the largest private collection of botanical articles and books in the state, now being curated at Eastern Kentucky University, and also amassed a large personal plant collection, now housed at Western Kentucky University. Medley’s dissertation (Medley 1993) was a major source of information throughout the writing of the present work.

Willem Meijer (1923-2003) and Floristic Activities at the University of Kentucky (1948-Present)

Willem MeijerWillem MeijerFollowing its destruction in 1948, the U.K. Herbarium was gradually rebuilt over the next five decades, under the following four curators: Dale Smith, 1955-1960; E.T. Browne, 1960-1967; Willem Meijer, 1968-1995. After leaving the University of Kentucky, Browne continued his work on the flora of Kentucky while at Memphis State University, eventually collaborating with Raymond Athey (see below) on several journal articles and one book (Browne and Athey 1992).

Willem Meijer, a specialist in tropical flora from the Netherlands, served as curator for 27 years. In addition to his tropical studies, he published a number of papers on the Kentucky flora, including booklets on the tree flora (Meijer 1972a), on the Compositae (Meijer 1972b), and on the herbaceous flora of the state (Meijer 1992b). Meijer’s students included Julian J.N. Campbell, Raymond B. Cranfill, and Howard L. Setser. Upon Dr. Meijer’s retirement the University of Kentucky Herbarium was moved from the School of Biological Sciences to the Department of Forestry, where it is now curated by Robert Paratley, and currently houses about 55,000 specimens.


Two other botanists, Jerry M. Baskin and Carol C. Baskin, both associated with the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Kentucky, and well known for their extensive work in plant ecology, have also contributed much to the study of the state’s flora through their numerous ecological and floristic publications.

The herbarium of the College of Agriculture, built primarily on the collections of Harrison Garman and Mary Didlake, has continued to be maintained (Haragan 1987b). It contains about 21,000 specimens, including some dating back to the 1860’s, and continues to focus on plants of agronomic interest, functioning as a source of information for farmers, cooperative agents, horticulturists, and naturalists. The collection provided the basis for Weeds of Kentucky and Adjacent States, published in 1991 by Patricia D. Haragan, who curated the collection from 1984 to 1988. This book is a guide to 160 species of weeds, with illustrations, descriptions, and ecological/ethnobotanical information.

John W. Thieret (1926-2005)and Floristic Activities at Regional Universities and Private Colleges (1948-Present)

John W. ThieretLittle floristic activity occurred at the regional universities or colleges until the 1960’s, although Harvey H. LaFuze while a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, did produce the first set of keys to Kentucky trees (LaFuze 1949). In the last 25 years, with the hiring of many new professors with interests in floristic botany, the floristic activity has accelerated, so that these institutions have now become the focal point of field botany studies in the state.

John W. Thieret of Northern Kentucky University has been a leader among state botanists over the past 25 years. He led efforts in the 1980’s to organize Kentucky botanists to produce a state flora, and the current work is a direct outgrowth of those efforts. Thieret coauthored the The Aquatic and Wetland Plants of Kentucky (Beal & Thieret 1986) and has published many articles on the flora of Kentucky. In addition he as served in important editorial capacities at both the state and national levels, including working as an editor for the Flora of North America series. Thieret also contributed enormously to the present work through his editorial skills and authoring of the Poaceae treatment.

Numerous publications (see literature citations for those authored by curators listed below) have been produced by botanists at regional institutions and private colleges over the last two decades. Among plant taxonomists, Ralph L. Thompson of Berea College has been the most prolific in both the collection of specimens and in the publishing of articles on the Kentucky flora. Among plant ecologists, William S. Bryant of Thomas More College and William H. Martin of Eastern Kentucky University have been the most active in publishing articles and books on the vegetation and plant communities of the state. Nearly all floristic master’s degrees produced in the state now come from the regional universities, and, in recent years, there has been an increase in undergraduate floristic research in the state (see articles in the spring issue of the J. Ky. Acad. Sci. 59). Today faculty with interests in field botany are still present at these institutions and continue to produce floristically trained undergraduate and graduate students. A listing of with herbaria of over 15,000 specimens is as follows, with dates of establishment, current estimated numbers of specimens, and chronological sequence of curators associated with these facilities:

  1. 1930’s––Morehead State University; 15,000 specimens. Clyde F. Reed, Howard L. Setser, and Allen Risk.
  2. 1961––Berea College; 20,000 specimens. James Grossman, Ralph L. Thompson.
  3. 1967––Western Kentucky University; 20,000 specimens. Ernest O. Beal, Kenneth A. Nicely, Zack E. Murrell, and Lawrence A. Alice.
  4. 1967––Murray State University; 39,000 specimens. Marian J. Fuller, Susan Hendricks. 5) 1973––Northern Kentucky University; 30,000 specimens. John W. Thieret, and Robert F.C. Naczi.
  5. 1974––Eastern Kentucky University; 60,000 specimens J. Stuart Lassetter, Ronald L. Jones.
  6. Note: Other Kentucky herbaria at Campbellsville College, Georgetown College, Cumberland College, and Asbury College–total collections about 6000.

Other Contributions to Floristic Botany in Kentucky, 1948–Present

1) Federal Agencies
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the United States Forest Service have been the primary federal agencies involved with botanical research in Kentucky. They have contributed to floristic and vegetational research by funding projects dealing with rare species status reports, rare species inventories, forest inventories, and various other studies.

2) State Agencies
The Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources have been the primary state agencies involved with floristic studies. These agencies have conducted or supported numerous investigations, often involving plant collections and publications on the flora and vegetation of the state.

3) Private Organizations
The Nature Conservancy has been the primary private organization involved in floristic studies in the state, through the funding of projects dealing with nature preserves and in cooperating with other federal and state agencies on other projects.

4) Private citizens
Many private citizens, through their support of botanical education and research, have made significant contributions toward an understanding of the plant life of Kentucky, but two individuals stand out as major contributors over the last 50 years to floristic research in the state.

Raymond Athey (1914–1991)

Raymond AtheyRaymond AtheyRaymond Athey was a self-taught amateur naturalist from Paducah, who was widely recognized as an expert on the flora of western Kentucky, discovering many new state records and rare species, and amassing a private herbarium of about 10,000 specimens (see Evans 1991b). He sent many duplicates of his specimens to the herbaria at VanderbiltUniversity and Memphis State University and developed a collaboration with E.T. Browne, which eventually led to several journal articles, and, more significantly, the publication of “Vascular Plants of Kentucky, An Annotated Checklist” (Browne & Athey 1992). This was the first published checklist of the Kentucky flora in almost 50 years. Athey’s legacy lives on, not only in his many specimens and publications, but also as a result of his generous endowments to the Kentucky Academy of Science, which continue to provide grants to both faculty and students for many kinds of biological studies in the state.

Charles J. Lapham (1934–present)

Charles J. LaphamCharles J. LaphamCharles J. Lapham of Barren County, became involved with the Kentucky Native Plant Society in the mid-1990’s, and developed an interest in herbarium databases. Working with state curators, he developed a herbarium software package, Index Kentuckiensis (IK), with multiple capabilities, including data entry, label-making, mapping, and access to the atlas data (Lapham et al. 1997). This system is now being utilized at several state herbaria. The program has been packaged into a CD and accompanying workbook, and made available to curators across the state and the southern United States, and he is continuing to improve and promote the software. In reality, Lapham, with his energy and technical skills, has led Kentucky botany into the 21st century.