Florence Signaigo Wagner (2/18/1919 – 10/21/2019) was an integral member of one of the great teams in 20th century Botany, with her husband Warren H. (Herb) Wagner, Jr. Together, they revolutionized, in many ways, the way we look at and look for ferns. Her partnership with Herb, and her passing, at the age of 100, bookends a great flourishing of field studies of especially North American ferns.

Photo courtesy of the Wagner family

Florence was born in Birmingham, Michigan, and spent much of her childhood in Michigan. The outdoors was always important as her father loved the land and always had what could perhaps be best described as a hobby farm, where the family would spend many weekends. Florence attended the College of William and Mary but graduated in 1941 with her BA in Philosophy with Distinction and Honors from the University of Michigan followed by her MA in Latin American Studies in 1943.

Even before they became life partners, Florence had already made her own contributions to botany. Her first interest in botany focused on red algae, with her doctoral work at the University of California, studying with the eminent phycologist George F. Papenfuss. She graduated in 1952, and published her thesis as a major paper in 1954, where she described the new genus Marionella, named for her landlady, the renowned Berkeley embryologist and cytologist Marion S. Cave. While at Berkeley, she met and married (1948) fellow graduate student, Herb Wagner, and began a life partnership of pteridological adventure, moving back to Michigan when Herb joined the University of Michigan in 1951.

Florence and Herb on one of their many collecting expeditions -- Photo courtesy Wagner family.

Florence brought rare gifts to the partnership. She anchored Herb’s home life and, once the family was more independent, again took an active research role. Florence was a skilled cytologist at a time when knowledge of the role of chromosomes and the significance of chromosome numbers was expanding rapidly, with chromosome numbers being one of the cornerstones of biosystematics. She co-authored dozens of scientific papers with Herb and others, contributing extensive cytological data underpinning the conclusions. She also published a number of papers as sole or first author, especially on fern hybrids and fern chromosomes, and presented many papers and seminars, always with a keen sense of humor. 

Later in her career – of course, Florence never retired – her interests were devoted to Ophioglossaceae, especially Botrychium, and the fern flora of Hawaii. Botrychium especially led Herb and Florence to many field trips throughout temperate and boreal North America, especially the northern Great Lakes region, the western mountains, and Alaska. The interest in Hawaii was Florence’s last thrust, and she continued to work at the Herbarium on Hawaiian ferns until quite recently. Throughout her career, almost every new entity was named either as a team with Herb or by Herb himself, in joint papers, a notable exception being the Hawaiian filmy fern Vandenboschia tubiflora F. S. Wagner, Contr. Univ. Michigan Herb. 20: 243 (1995).

Florence held various research titles in Biology and the Herbarium at the University of Michigan, starting in 1961 as ‘‘Assistant in Research,’’ later Research Associate, and from 1993 on, Research Scientist. She was unstintingly helpful to students, far beyond just the technicalities of cytology. She also was generous in devoting time and energy to professional societies. She held many offices in university, regional, and national societies. Most notably, she served as Chair of the Pteridological Section of the Botanical Society of America (1982-1984) and as Vice-President (1984-1985) and President (1986-1987) of the American Fern Society.

Read more in the fall 2016 issue cover story of EEB's Natural Selections.