Thirty years ago, botanist Jake A. Ruygt started collecting plant specimens from all over Napa County. Today, his home office is filled with cabinets, drawers and several stacks of pressed plant matter, carefully stored and organized.
Growing up in that house, I recall my father hunched over his microscope on most evenings, drawing with a micron. I’d creep into his office on occasion, and he’d reveal his drawing of a carefully inked flower with stem and leaf details, meticulously labeled.
It wasn’t just his office that contained these mysteries. The newly collected plants found themselves onto the kitchen table, waiting all day to be pressed between newspaper well after I was asleep.
Today, I am 34 years old, and I can say my father has been working on “A Flora of Napa County” for as long as I can remember. The last 10 years of writing, editing and publishing this book looked different— instead of a microscope, a computer— but all the same, he has been disciplined and determined.
“A Flora of Napa County” was released on Dec 1. The “Flora” compiles more than 30 years of field research on the native plants found in Napa County, their indigenous uses, and scientific descriptions.
His aim in writing the book is to inspire all individuals to learn about the native environment and to share the botanical history of the Napa Valley with the next generation. This book includes historical information, species descriptions, beautiful color plates, and detailed botanical illustrations. It is a complete reference book and field guide for anyone interested in exploring the native plants of Napa Valley.
I sat down with him to learn more about the project’s origin and revisit his expeditions throughout the Napa Valley.
Andrea: How did you first get interested in exploring the Napa Valley’s native landscape?
Jake: I was doing research at some universities, looking up the recorded plant species, and I really liked the idea of doing my own ‘Flora.’ It wasn’t really concrete, even for the first 20 years, until I’d collected so many plants and information that it started to feel like I really had something to offer.
Andrea: What interested you most about the native plant life in Napa County?
Jake: It’s a beautiful place, and didn’t yet have its own complete ‘Flora. And it was something I could do while raising my family. It’s sort of a natural boundary, with a big enough area to cover that was close to home. If it was too far away it would consume so much time, so I thought I could reasonably cover what was in Napa County.
Andrea: Over the course of your fieldwork did anything surprise you or excite you?
Jake: What was really exciting were the times I found something new that hadn’t been considered a species in Napa County. You think that everything has been documented, but sometimes things would show up in the county that weren’t expected to be there, and weren’t scientifically described. You investigate further, and you have something unique- it’s enlivening!
Andrea: And you found a new species, right?
Ruygt: Yes! I found three different things. First, I found something unique and sent the information to a colleague, and he agreed with me. We worked on that together, then he described it and named it. Second, I discovered a new species altogether that I described and got to name, Ruygtii- the blue curls. The third was Alice Clover, which I helped describe with two other individuals. It’s a complicated process to describe a new species or sub-species, and I’m still working on getting more comfortable with it.
Andrea: Can you tell us more about “A Flora of Napa County”?
Jake: Yes, it’s a complete learning guide for anyone who is interested or needs to know about the native plant life in the Napa Valley. The start of the book contains the cultural history of the Napa Valley, and the impact of vegetation. I write about other people who have collected and contributed to building up this flora over the last 100 years. There’s a list of the rare species in Napa County, and a short list of plants thought to be extinct.
There are appendices about the indigenous use of plants, on bird use and mammal habitats, as well as plants that have been recorded in the county, but weren’t added to the official Flora because of missing information.
And if you like being out in the field, there are also photo plates, maps of the area, and botanical illustrations for reference.
Andrea: Because you’ve now explored pretty much every inch of Napa County, do you have a favorite area to hike?
Jake: I love hiking anywhere from Atlas Peak to Mount St. Helena; that part of the range in the middle of the county, is my favorite. I also love exploring the Knoxville area. There are interesting things pretty much everywhere in the county.
Andrea: Did you have any helpful advice for budding botanists?
Jake: I recommend using the book—that’s why I created it. My goal is to assist people advance in their studies of plants, and encourage people to explore and see what’s still out there.
Andrea: And why should we know what’s out there?
Jake: To me, it’s all part of the fabric of life. If we know about our natural diversity and our native heritage, then we are more likely to protect it. If it isn’t protected, we risk losing it all.
Jake Ruygt is the Conservation Chair of the Napa Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. You can order “A Flora of Napa Valley” online at https://flora-of-napa-valley.square.site/, or purchase from Napa Bookmine. For more information about the California Native Plant Society Napa Valley Chapter, visit chapters.cnps.org/napa/.