Legend from the world of Michigan botany, Edward G. Voss, dies, leaves the newly released Field Manual of Michigan Flora to extend his legacy

Posted: 2/2/2012

Edward G. Voss, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan, curator emeritus of vascular plants at the University Herbarium, and a legendary teacher at the University of Michigan Biological Station, died on Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 just three days before the release of his latest book.  On February 16, the University of Michigan Press released Field Manual of Michigan Flora, co-authored by Voss and Dr. Anton A. Reznicek, curator of vascular plants at the University Herbarium.  According to the publisher, the new Flora is the most up-to-date guide available for all seed plants growing wild in Michigan.

With a distinguished career in both natural history and systematic botany, Voss is a nationally recognized scholar, teacher and regional leader in conservation, according to an article on Denison University’s website. His monumental three-volume work, Michigan Flora, was the culmination of 40 years of collecting, identifying and describing more than 2,500 seed-bearing plants native to Michigan. The three volumes, published in 1972, 1985 and 1997, respectively, include descriptions, illustrations, taxonomic keys, color plates of Voss's photographs and 2,465 maps of documented distributions for all known seed plants in the state. The volumes proved essential to environmental consultants, persons responsible for threatened and endangered species, wildflower enthusiasts, photographers and environmental lawyers and have enabled intelligent amateurs as well as botanists to identify any flowering plant in Michigan. The first volume of Michigan Flora was honored by a Resolution of the Michigan Senate in 1972; the second volume received the H.A. Gleason Award of the New York Botanical Garden in 1986. The new Field Manual of Michigan Flora expands and updates the first three volumes.

These books represent a significant contribution to the Michigan historical literature. Voss’ role as the leading authority on a large flora came about during an era of growing awareness and interest in threatened biological diversity.

Born in Delaware, Ohio, in 1929, Voss spent his childhood in Toledo. His early interest in plants and insects began at his family's cottage in Mackinaw City, Mich., where he spent summers collecting caterpillars, moths, butterflies and plants. After earning a bachelor's degree in biology with honors from Denison University in 1950, Voss continued his education at the University of Michigan where he earned a master's degree in biology in 1951 and a Ph.D. in botany in 1954. He had homes in Ann Arbor and Mackinaw City, Mich.

He joined U-M in 1956 as a research associate at the Herbarium and was appointed assistant professor in 1960, promoted to associate professor in 1963 and professor of botany in 1969. Many of his former students have gone on to distinguished academic careers of their own, including directorships of several herbariums and the chair of botany at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Voss served as curator of vascular plants from 1961 until his retirement in 1996. He spent 55 summers teaching at the University of Michigan Biological Station at Douglas Lake introducing generations of biologists from all over the country to field botany where they absorbed his encyclopedic knowledge even as they sank into the bogs, swatted the mosquitoes, and groaned at his puns. Voss took Botany at the UMBS in 1949 as a senior (he got an A+) and was there ever since, as a teaching assistant, an investigator, and a teacher through 2008. Voss’ scientific interests include entomology and he has published several studies of moths.

After being awarded emeritus status from the University of Michigan in 1996, Voss kept an office at the Herbarium and remained active. He gave illustrated lectures on botanical history and/or plants of the Great Lakes Region to both professional and nonprofessional groups and led field trips for such groups as the Little Traverse Conservancy and the Michigan Botanical Club, which bestowed a lifetime achievement award on him.

Voss's focus of research was the vascular plants of the Great Lakes region: their taxonomy, identification, phytogeography, postglacial history, and status in natural environments—with special interest in boreal plants generally and in aquatic plants. He was also interested in the history of biology (especially the early exploration in the Great Lakes region) and in Lepidoptera of the northern Great Lakes area.

“There are enough Ed Voss accomplishments to fill a book,” wrote Jim McCormac, a biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, who considered Voss a mentor. “But all of that aside, what Ed did throughout his career that was at least of equal importance to his academic work was his encouragement of others,” he continued in a blog post about Voss. “For years, other budding young botanists and I would make annual pilgrimages to Ann Arbor to visit Ed and his colleague Tony Reznicek. We would come bearing sheets and sheets of ‘mystery’ plants -- specimens that try as we might, we could not satisfactorily attach a name to. Ed would always, with great patience and never a trace of condescension, work us through our mysteries until a name was arrived at. Those of us who made these journeys to The Man, learned not only a great deal about identifying plants, but also how to encourage students.”

“Gary (Williams) said many times that Ed Voss was by far the best teacher he had ever had,” wrote Gussie Williams, his widow. Williams was a student of Voss’, a teaching assistant and a long-time friend. “Gary had many teachers and as a department chairman evaluated many teachers. He admired Ed's preparation for classes whether it was a field trip or a lecture; his enthusiasm for what he was teaching even though he may have taught the same lesson or seen the same plants hundreds of times; his knowledge of plants and butterflies.”

The new Field Manual of Michigan Flora by Voss and Reznicek significantly expands and updates the three-volume Michigan Flora by incorporating the discoveries of numerous additional species, recent systematic research, and a vast trove of new information on the shifting distributions of Michigan species. It presents concise identification keys, information about habitats, and completely updated distribution maps for all the seed plants, native or naturalized, that have been recorded from the state, fully treating over 2,700 species. All non-native species are included with notes on their first discovery in the state and comments on invasive tendencies. Rare native species that appear to be declining or to have shrinking ranges are also noted. This book is an essential reference for anyone interested in appreciating Michigan's natural heritage and understanding our ever-changing environment.

Field Manual of Michigan Flora can be ordered at the University of Michigan Press

“It was a labor of love for me to prepare the Dr. Voss tribute video,” wrote Mary Crum Scholtens. “While you watch the slideshow, you may develop the sense that it is not just a love letter to Dr. Voss, but to the Biological Station, and the natural world, and..... that is how Ed would have wanted it.”