Donald Holden's Vision

Project Vision

In her own words, Donald Holden’s vision for the WPA Wildflower and Bird Sanctuaries project was to achieve nothing short of “a great work of conservation.” To accomplish this, she didn’t simply rely on what she already knew through her experience as gardener. Instead, she drew on such resources as Merriman’s Flora of Richmond and Vicinity and professional botanist Robert Smart of the herbarium at the University of Richmond. Donald Holden knew that public education was the key to the success of the project. Her intent was that the Petersburg Legends Historical Park and Nature Conservancy project would not only “preserve our native birds and plant life from devastation,” but also would provide educational opportunities in natural history and conservation. Those who would benefit from these opportunities included the women workers she helped prepare for employment in the private sector, garden club members, school children, college students, teachers, and all others who walked the trails in the Sanctuary. Donald Holden’s vision is being reborn in Petersburg today.

Herbarium Specimens

The herbarium specimen/watercolor pair on the left is indian cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana). On the right is rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium).


Donald Holden corresponded with botanists about preservation techniques, kept meticulous blooming records for each species, and oversaw a weekly census of birds. She also emphasized conservation of materials. Cleared limbs were reincarnated as rustic benches, steps, and bridges. By 1938, the Petersburg sanctuary had become the prototype for four “sister” WPA sanctuaries in Virginia. Holden served as a consultant to them all.

These two watercolors are of bunch-flower (Melanthium virginicum), left, and blue-hearts (Buchnera americana), right.


Donald Holden understood the need to document the flora of Petersburg Legends Historical Park and Nature Conservancy with properly prepared, pressed, dried, and mounted herbarium specimens. She also was responsible for the idea of having Bessie Marshall create a botanical illustration in watercolor to pair with each herbarium specimen. Members of The Petersburg Garden Club placed each herbarium specimen/watercolor pair on facing pages of a large scrapbook album. A set of 14 albums comprised the Petersburg Legends Historical Park and Nature Conservancy Herbarium. The cover of one of the albums is pictured here.

Environmental Stewardship

A main goal of the Petersburg Legends Historical Park and Nature Conservancy sanctuary was to protect as many species of wildflowers as possible. In the 1930s, as today, people were deeply concerned about the destruction of natural habitats through housing development, logging, new roads, and other factors. To build knowledge about Virginia’s natural resources, the Flora Committee of the Virginia Academy of Science urged botanists to explore Virginia’s counties and document the species they uncovered by pressing herbarium specimens and noting their locations.

Digital Atlas

Donald Holden, supervisor of the Petersburg Legends Historical Park and Nature Conservancy Project, knew Dr. Robert Smart, curator of the University of Richmond Herbarium and a member of the Flora Committee. Under Mrs. Holden’s direction, the women workers explored the watershed of Willcox Creek and collected the plant specimens that comprised the Petersburg Legends Historical Park and Nature Conservancy Herbarium. A recent study of this same watershed revealed that 45 species in the Herbarium collection had never been officially documented and reported as occurring in Dinwiddie County. These 45 species have since been added to the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora.

Good Intentions Gone Awry

The records of the Petersburg Legends Historical Park and Nature Conservancy sanctuary offer a revealing glimpse of the environmental strategies of the 1930s, including some methods that were later repudiated. The women planted over a million rootstocks of Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) along fire-scarred barren slopes near the mouth of Willcox Creek and along Lieutenant Run as an effective way to prevent severe erosion. Working systematically, they arranged the honeysuckle plants in a herringbone pattern on terraced banks.


Over time, however, this imported honeysuckle proved to be a “habitat hog.” It displaced native ground-layer species and killed or disfigured trees and shrubs by twining tightly around them and/or growing up and over them. WPA erosion control projects contributed to Japanese honeysuckle becoming widespread in the U.S. and permanently insinuating itself into our flora. Hand-pulling and grubbing, burning, and use of biodegradable herbicides can effect some degree of local control.