A growing passion: Professor’s book promotes wildflowers
According to Tim Spira, every plant has a story to tell, and the abundant plant life in the southern Appalachian Mountains and the rolling hills of the adjacent Piedmont are especially talkative.
As a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Spira teaches courses in field botany and plant ecology. His interactions with students inspired him to write Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia (University of North Carolina Press). The work serves as an introductory guide to plants and natural communities for amateur and professional naturalists alike.
The book is a labor of love 10 years in the making for Spira. He photographed all the plants himself, no easy task given that he switched from film to digital halfway through the project. The finished product was well worth the effort, though, as Spira has already received praise both from his colleagues at Clemson and faculty from neighboring institutions such as Duke University.
The book marks a turn from the academic writing that Spira has been accustomed to in his professional career. Through the book, he tries to connect with a broader readership in order to make plants and their natural communities both exciting and accessible.
Unlike field guides that focus primarily on identification, Spira’s book takes a holistic and ecological approach to understanding plant life, examining each plant’s interaction with its environment and other organisms.
“Plants don’t live in a vacuum,” said Spira, “so we can’t treat each one as independent from the rest.”
A unique aspect of Spira’s book is the photo keys, illustrated guides to common and conspicuous plants organized by community type. Readers can quickly preview photos of common and conspicuous plants, as well as some rare and unusual ones, of representative communities prior to exploring a particular area.
Beyond the photo keys, Spira provides background information on the southern Appalachian Mountains and nearby Piedmont, describes the essential elements of plant communities and provides specific information on 21 major communities of the region. In addition, illustrated descriptions of the 340 species profiled in the book help readers learn about their ecology and natural history, as well as identify them.
“If you were at a party with 50 people,” said Spira, describing the book’s framework, “would you rather go around the entire room and briefly be introduced to those 50 people, just names and faces, or would you like to really get to know 10 of them, their stories, backgrounds and personalities?”
Spira hopes that his book will acquaint readers with plant life in a more engaging way than a catalog of names and pictures, and he finds his project particularly suited to the rich array of plants in the Southeast.
Spira’s passion for plants developed when he was a college student exploring the mountains of northern California. He now enjoys excursions into the North Carolina mountains and forests of the adjoining Piedmont.
“Clemson is a great place to be, especially for someone who enjoys plants and natural habitats, as there are so many interesting places to explore within a short distance,” he said.
Spira’s wife, Lisa Wagner, director of education for the South Carolina Botanical Garden, is a fellow botanist who shares his enthusiasm for nature. They are native plant gardeners and have created extensive natural habitats both at home in Clemson and at their small house in Asheville, N.C., where they spend summers and many weekends.
Spira is currently taking part in a lecture circuit around the Southeast to promote his book. He recently spoke to an audience of more than 100 at the Wildflower and Bird Pilgrimage in Asheville. Spira’s talk was on a Friday evening; he then spent the weekend guiding wildflower walks with attendees.
“It was incredibly gratifying to spend time with people who are excited about using my book,” he said. “People thanked me for writing it and told me they found the organization to be especially helpful, which I was so happy to hear.”
Spira is excited to share his passion for plants with a new group of students this fall. He’ll be using his book to teach field botany, a course in which 75 students are enrolled.