During my first field season of doctoral research, I set up a deer exclosure experiment to study plant community change in the presence and absence of deer browsing at Mountain Lake Biological Station in southwestern Virginia. I recently visited the fences, which have been up for 9 years.
By the time I finished my dissertation, each species of plant was familiar to me, even if I did not know what it was yet. Many plants are difficult to identify to species until they show reproductive parts–flowers, seeds, or spores.
Once the deer were excluded, slowly over the years more plants began to flower.
My PhD advisor’s wife, Becky Wilbur, has been studying the flora of this area for decades, and she became a tremendous resource as we endeavored to identify each plant–even each lily, grass, and sedge. Over time, more diversity began to emerge. For example, a lily that I had first seen as a single leaf among the leaf litter grew into a stem with tiers of whorled leaves that flowered five years later. It ended up being a Canada lily (at left). We had thought we only had one lily in this genus in our study area, Lilium superbum, but it turned out we had at least two.
Unfortunately, the incredible volume Flora of Virginia had not been published yet (it was published in late 2012), but now that it is one could identify vegetative lilies using this book’s helpful key to lilies based on leaf characteristics. The differences between such lilies can be extremely subtle. In the case of L. canadensis, it is more scabrous, or rougher, along the veins on the underside of the leaf than L. superbum. You can only tell them apart with experience. There are so many more examples like this, and I look forward to continuing to watch and learn from this simple experiment.