The appropriate level at which to treat members of the North American Paper Birch complex (Betula papyrifera sensu lato) continues to be a difficult and controversial question. In recent years, the isolated Virginia populations of this northern tree have been widely treated as Betula cordifolia (or Betula papyrifera var. cordifolia, depending on one’s taxonomic outlook). Yet the Flora of North American (Vol. 3) also maps Betula papyrifera (sensu stricto) in Virginia, and observations have suggested that our trees often have contradictory or mixed characters that make unequivocal placement difficult. A recent blog post by Devin Floyd (http://blueridgediscoveryproject.blogspot.com/2011/07/exploring-talus-of-turk.html), describing a tree in Augusta County with characters that seem to fully match Betula papyrifera, drove home the need for a comprehensive reassessment of Virginia paper birch.
Consequently, the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, with assistance from Chip Morgan and the botany staff at Shenandoah National Park, has initiated a project to collect morphological data on Virginia paper birch through field visits of selected populations and a review of existing in-state herbarium material. These data will be analyzed in an attempt to determine the degree of variation among our populations, and how many taxa should be recognized. The project may take a while since the herbaria of Longwood University (FARM) and George Mason University (GMUF), both repositories for large numbers of paper birch specicmens, are both under renovation and inaccessible until later this year. Results will be posted when available.