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2022 Year-End Summary: Successes & New Goals

February 15th, 2023 by Alex Zorach

2022 was a big year for us, with the launch of ecoregion-based plant lists and searches, interlinking with numerous websites and databases, and beginning the difficult work of bringing the taxonomy of the plants on our site up-to-date. In addition to starting new projects, we completed others, retiring our first-generation range maps and fully replacing them with our newer, better maps. We also had some major fundraising successes.

On top of this we have been chugging away at other less-announced and behind-the-scenes progress, continuing to complete range maps for species that lack them, and continuing to link up records between our database and other databases for taxa that do not have a simple one-to-one correspondence between the records. As we do this, we are building tools that help this work to proceed faster and more smoothly.
This photo shows a plant which we call American stinging nettle (Urtica gracilis); many sources however classify it as Urtica dioica ssp. gracilis; the inconsistent treatment complicates the interlinking of records, but we are making an effort to link up taxa with corresponding records that refer to the same populations, which may not match the same names we use. Just as this plant produces a painful sting if handled without gloves, some of the more messy taxa are able to produce a big headache!

Photo © Tom Scavo, CC BY 4.0, Source.

Fundraising Successes, But Still Far From Even Mid-Term Goals

In 2022 we more-than-tripled our number of donors, and nearly tripled our total revenue, which mostly came from donations. You can find more details on our 2022 financial statement.

Although this growth is a major success and we would like to celebrate it, and we are very grateful to all our current supporters, we want to emphasize that we are still far from being able to pay even a single person a living wage. This website has been primarily a volunteer effort for years now, going back to 2018 before its launch, and we have achieved all our success with no funding beyond the donations and other minimal revenue displayed on our financial statements.

In order for this project to be sustainable and to realize its goals, we will need a lot more support than we are currently getting, so we would encourage you to continue giving, consider donating if are able to and have not yet done so, and perhaps also networking to recruit other donors.
This graph shows both that last year marked a big increase in our donations, and that most of our donations came in during the growing season.

Adjusting Donation Quantities for Inflation

Inflation has been high since we launced our donation system, and the costs for our infrastructure have increased, as well as general cost-of-living which has diluted the real value of donations. As such we have adjusted the recommended values for inflation, which amounts to an increase of +7%. You can see the new values on our donate page, which is always accessible in the top-right corner (in a hidden menu on mobile.) We will continue to update these values in the future. Existing subscriptions for recurring donation will not be affected, but we would appreciate it if you would update your subscription quantities as well. Unfortunately our system does not allow automatic inflation-adjustment of the quantities.

You can edit your subscription by logging on, visiting your profile, then clicking the "Donations" tab. This option is currently only available for people who gave recurring donations; we have not yet launched user accounts for other donors but we may do this in the near future.

More ID/Comparison Guides

The ID/Comparison guides remain one of the most popular aspects of the site, perhaps due to filling a much-needed niche intermediate between the "hardcore" floras and dichotomous keys, and more accessible but sometimes-oversimplified popular sources that gloss over tougher aspects of plant ID. Although these guides are time-consuming to construct, we continue to prioritize them because plant ID is critically important in both ecological restoration as well as selection of plants for use in gardening and landscaping.

In 2022 we started a total of 35 new plant ID guides, 15 of which are now completed, and we also completed other guides that were under construction. Our total number of published, completed guides is now 99.

Wildrye (Elymus) Guides

This photo shows early wildrye (Elymus macgregorii), a species only described in 2000. Older keys will thus treat it as some other species, usually Virginia wildrye (Elymus virginicus). Photo © Katja Schulz, CC BY 4.0, Source.

Among new guides we have started ID guides for the Elymus (wildrye) genus, which, in North America, are mostly native cool-season perennial bunchgrasses. So far we have completed:
Numerous other guides are underway, some of which are mostly completed, and will be published soon.

Pine (Pinus) Guides

very flat savanna with saw palmetto in the foreground and tall, very straight pines in the distanceThis photo shows slash pines in a savanna in Florida. We have been moving southward and our ID guides are beginning to cover some more southern species. Photo by Daniel Estabrooks, Public Domain, Source.

We also continued adding more pine ID guides, gradually moving towards the more southeastern pines:
There are also numerous pine guides under construction and close to publication.

Other Guides

In addition we added other random guides. For example, Rhomboid Mercury (Acalypha australis) vs. Asian Copperleaf (Acalypha australis) is useful for distinguishing a common native plant from an introduced plant that has been showing up on an increasing number of sites across North America, and may have potential to be invasive.

Other random guides include:
These guides are a mix of different types, two focusing on telling apart natives from invasives, some or distinguishing visually-similar and closely-related native plants, and the spruce guide primarily focusing on landscaping plants. And of course there are many other random guides under development!

Thank you for your interest and support!

New Databases Linked: Flora of North America & NatureServe Explorer

November 11th, 2022 by Alex Zorach

A little less than two years ago, we announced the linking of our plant articles with various other websites and plant databases. We are pleased to announce continued progress on this front, and we want to highlight the most recent two additions to our collection of links on each plant article: Flora of North America and NatureServe Explorer. This post will explain a little about each site and the ways in which each is most useful.

Flora of North America

Flora of North America (FNA) is a massive project to collect in a single reference the names, taxonomic relationships, distribution info, and morphological descriptions of all plants occurring in the wild in North America north of Mexico. The material is available both in print volumes, and on the web. Formerly, FNA was only available through the efloras.org website, which also hosts other floras including Flora of China, Flora of Missouri, and several others. However, recently FNA has moved to its own dedicated website, which is more readable, mobile-friendly, and slightly more feature-rich.

Our interlinking with FNA coincides roughly with FNA's dedicated website graduating from its "beta test" period, so we have linked only to the newer site.
This screenshot of FNA's entry for bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) shows the detailed morphology section, the most extensive part of FNA. This page happens to be illustrated, but most are not.

FNA is only partly complete, but even in its incomplete form, it represents an unparalleled resource, especially for its description of the morphological characteristics of each plant, which are useful for performing rigorous plant identification. It is important to note, however, that FNA is a better resource for certain types of information than others. We have found its descriptions of morphology to be its best / most useful aspect.

FNA not only has records for species, but also for higher (families, subfamilies, genera, subgenera, sections, etc.) and lower (subspecies, varieties) taxa as well. Furthermore, at each level there are dichotomous keys that can allow you to rigorously work to narrow down an ID of a particular plant. If you are serious about plant ID you will likely benefit from using their site directly, not just following the links from our site, as it has a much richer structure and organization than is evident from our links alone.

Another particular strength is that FNA covers a larger area, so the information on plant morphology covers a larger range of natural variation that is often omitted in state or regional sources. As such, when used for rigorous ID, FNA's material remains applicable over a much larger area. Although regional sources can be easier to use to identify plants in their specific region, they often become inaccurate if used outside their scope.

Limitations or Shortcomings of FNA

In some cases, FNA also provides information on habitat; where this information is present it tends to be highly accurate, but the presence and/or depth of this information is inconsistent.

The information on plant ranges and distribution is mostly coarse, presented only at the level of states and provinces, occasionally supplemented by brief verbal descriptions, but nowhere near the level of detail of BONAP, USDA, or any of the regional resources we consult. There are also many plant populations, especially introductions, missed by FNA, so in general it tends to under-report plant ranges.

Arguably a more serious problem with FNA is that it often marks plants as native to regions where they most certainly are not native. There are multiple causes for these oversights. In some cases, FNA perpetuates the failure of USDA PLANTS and other earlier sources to distinguish between plants native to a continent, but introduced or expanding elsewhere. For example, FNA marks the prairie sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) as native everywhere in North America, whereas it is has expanded its range or been introduced both east and northwest of its native range.
Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) is one of many plants native to much of North America but that has been introduced and/or expanded northeast of its native range; this pattern is common in the Heliantheae or sunflower tribe. FNA does not make these distinctions and marks these plants as native everywhere they are found in North America. Photo © Andrew St. Paul, CC BY 4.0, Source.

In other cases, the errors relate to sloppy or incorrect plant taxonomy; for example FNA does not distinguish between any subspecies of the common reed, Phragmites australis, and wrongly reports this as one species native to everywhere it is found in North America, when in reality most populations are introduced from Europe, and the native and introduced populations are considered by most authorities to belong at least to separate subspecies, and by many (including us) to be separate species, the Eurasian common reed (Phragmites australis) and American common reed (Phragmites americanus). The distinctions between these species/subspecies is particularly relevant as the introduced taxon, whether treated as a species or subspecies, is one of the most damaging invasive plants in North America, whereas the native one is endangered. Holding onto the older treatment in this case is particularly inexcusable, as their entry on the common reed has been updated as recently as 2021, while evidence for the separate populations was published in 2004.

For these reasons we recommend ignoring the information presented by FNA on range and plant's status in an area as native or introduced. We will update our recommendations if we see evidence that FNA has systematically addressed these deficiencies. We continue to find BONAP and regional sources such as the Maryland Biodiversity Project, Calflora, E-Flora BC, and various state and regional plant atlases to be the best sources to consult for assessing plant ranges and status in a region, and we recommend checking these sources if you want detailed information on exactly where a plant occurs, that goes beyond what you can find on our current-generation range maps.

FNA's presentation of plant taxonomy is inconsistent. In some cases, it provides exceptional clarity, giving detailed explanations of relationships that are often not clearly explained in most sources. However, in other cases it can be deficient in its treatment of taxonomic relationships, either by holding onto outdated treatments rejected by most modern authorities, or in some cases using a reasonable, up-to-date treatment but providing no explanation for potentially confusing relationships or changes in the taxon in question. On average, FNA is significantly slower to incorporate new information than Plants of the World Online (POWO), which we have found to have the best and most up-to-date information on plant names and taxonomy.

NatureServe Explorer

NatureServe Explorer (NSE) is an entirely different type of resource from FNA, with complementary strengths. The focus of NatureServe Explorer is on conservation.

Although many websites provide state- and province-level range maps, NSE stands out in that its maps are color-coded, often with additional verbal information, to denote the conservation status of a particular species in each region. This information is highly relevant because most species, even the most common ones, are locally-endangered somewhere, typically around the edges of their range. NSE maps also show where species have been locally extirpated.
This screenshot shows the color-coded state-level map for Appalachian joe-pye weed (Eutrochium steelei), which is classified as secure in Virginia, but critically imperilled in West Virginia and vulnerable in the rest of its range.

The maps are only a small part of the resources provided by NSE. Although some articles are more complete than others, many of the plant pages on NSE have extensive verbal descriptions of the conservation issues relevant to the plant. This information often provides useful information both on the plant's habitat requirements, and the way these interact with human land use patterns and other potential threats to the plant's populations.

Lastly, in some cases, NSE provides explanation of taxonomic relationships, including discussion of historical changes, that can be hard to find elsewhere.

Limitations of NSE: Primarily Incompleteness

Like any resource, NSE has its limitations, and in this case, the largest issue is its incompleteness. In contrast with FNA, we have yet to find any major errors or misleading information on the site, but unfortunately NSE is less far along in its completion. A large portion of the maps on the site are incomplete, showing the ambiguous "no status rank" for large numbers of states and provinces. The finer spatial data using a hexagonal grid are available for even fewer species, and those with data usually only have it for a small part of the range.

In general, NSE's data are too incomplete to be a useful indicator of where the species occur. However, we have largely found the existing data to be accurate, especially when the written descriptions below are also consulted, as they often clarify various nuances.

Links Added To ID Guides

Because FNA is so useful for plant identification, we have added links to the FNA records for all ID/Comparison guides for which these records exist. In addition, we have displayed three other linked websites on these guides: Go Botany, which has a New England focus, Illinois Wildflowers, and Virginia Tech Dendrology Factsheets.

What is next?

Although we have interlinked the vast majority of records from both of these sites, there is still a lot of cleanup work to be done, notably, in the linking of records where the scientific names used by these sites differ from the names we use, as well as records where our treatment of taxa are merged or split relative to how they are treated on these sites. This work is much slower and more labor-intensive, and we have not even completed it for previously interlinked websites, including BONAP.

There are also numerous other databases and plant websites on our list to integrate with, and we hope to continue this work in the coming year.

And, of course, we have all the other work on our site, including new plant ID guides, new articles, and continual refinement and completion of more range maps.

All Range Maps 2nd Generation, Taxonomic Updates, & Fundraising Goal Met!

September 29th, 2022 by Alex Zorach

We have three items of progress and good news to announce! The first is that we have finally retired all of the first generation ERA-based range maps, in most cases replacing them with newer, better maps. The second is that along the way, we have also made some important taxonomic revisions.
The American red raspberry (Rubus strigosus) is one taxon which we have reclassified, for reasons we explain below. Photo © Elliott Gordon, CC BY 4.0, Source.

Unrelated to these achievements, we also met our first fundraising goal, and as such, have taken down the fundraising banner for the time since putting it up. The banner will return closer to the end of the year when we start working towards our next goal, but in the meanwhile you can still donate using the donation links in the header or footer of our site.

All Maps Are Now 2nd-Generation Maps

A little over a year ago, we annouced our second generation range maps which represented a significant improvement over our first generation of maps which we published in August of 2019. We initially published the easiest of the maps to generate, but there were intiially still 1,137 of the old maps. Replacing these was more difficult, because the maps that needed to be constructed were ones where there were complexities or challenges, such as taxonomic changes, inconsistencies in data, or other uncertainty or roadblocks.

But we have finally finished this task! And, in the course of completing these maps, we have also cleaned up a lot of the data on the site, data used in the ecoregion-based plant lists and search that we launched this March. These lists and searches are now fully free of the deficiencies of the first-generation range data, which included overestimating the ranges of plants at the edges of their range, failing to distinguish when plants were native somewhere but not everywhere in North America, and in a few cases even marking things as native that were not.

Key Taxonomic Changes, Including Mergers & Splits

We have begun updating the taxonomy of many plants to reflect newer research. In most cases, our new treatments reflect that of Plants of the World Online (POWO), run by the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, as we have found POWO to have the best taxonomic backbone. However, there are some instances where we have deviated from POWO's treatment. These deviations include several instances of taxa that POWO treats as subspecies of a single species, where we have separated them into two species, only one of which is native to North America. Probably the four best-known species we have split in this way include:
We reclassified Phragmites australis from one species with two varieties in North America, to two separate species. This picture shows the eurasian common reed (Phragmites australis), the more common and widespread taxon in North America, and an invasive plant here. Photo by mefisher, Public Domain, Source.

We split each of these taxa for compelling ecological reasons, such as the fact that the split taxa, in each case, hybridize in the wild either not at all (with Urtica) or infrequently (such as with Phragmites) and less commonly than other taxa (such as Quercus or oaks) that are separated into species. The splits also have the added benefit of clarifying the species-level maps. BONAP's maps for species that include both introduced and native subspecies, such as their map for Rubus idaeus (which lumps native and introduced taxa together into one species) can be hard to read and can obscure information, such as failing to distinguish between where only native populations are found, vs. both native and introduced populations.

We also merged a large number of species, particularly those that were considered separate by the USDA but have been merged under both BONAP's and POWO's treatments. Some of the better-known of these species include:
Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina) is one taxon we merged another into, in this case Halesia tetraptera. Photo © mjpapay, CC BY 4.0, Source.

In addition to merges and splits we have carried out a number of more involved reclassifications, where a taxon was split up and different populations (varieties or subspecies of it) was assigned into various different species.

In almost all cases, we updated our maps to reflect the new classification schemes, but there were a few complex and difficult cases where we have struggled to build maps, and in these cases we took the old maps down. We also left a few placeholders or markers for taxa that have been reclassified in such a way that, although the taxon is still recognized, it is no longer thought to occur anywhere in North America. Users searching for the names of these taxa will then see a page explaining the change and pointing them to the names for the new taxa. The best-known example of such a change is perennial glasswort (Salicornia perennis), whose page explains the changes fully.

These explanations can be found in the Taxonomy Notes field, which can be found at the top of each article, above the table of contents. We placed the field here because we thought it critical that a person know what exactly the article is referring to before reading the article or otherwise using it as a reference.

More Range Maps Verified for All of North America (Including Canada & Mexico)

In June we announced the verification of 3,272 range maps for all of North America; we have completed the next phase of these range maps, and now have 4,793 maps verified. What this means is that the maps have been completed for all of North America, including Mexico and Canada. Most of these are plants that only occur in the lower 48 US states, but it now includes 90 range maps extending into ecoregions that do not intersect the lower 48 states, mostly in Canada but a few also extending into Mexico, and many more plants whose ranges extend outside the US but only in ecoregions also intersecting the lower 48.
White spruce (Picea glauca) is one species where we have constructed its range map through all of North America; this conifer, a key species in boreal forests, is primarily native to Canada. We have prioritized finishing maps for common tree species in Canada. Photo © , CC BY-SA 4.0.

Presently, just under 30% of the 16,376 range maps have been verified in this way. Completing this process is important for us to be able to generate exhaustive plant lists for ecoregions outside of the lower 48 US states, which includes Canada, Alaska, and Mexico. We will likely prioritize Canada first, and prioritize completing these lists for ecoregions closer to the US, especially those in high-population areas as this is where there is the most demand for such lists, but we are also prioritizing common and ecologically-important species.

Our First Fundraising Goal Met

We have not only met but exceeded our short-term fundraising goal, the modest goal of $5,000. However, this is only the beginning of a multi-step process towards building a sustaining organization that will help us realize the full vision for bplant.org; we are still far from paying a single person a living wage for working full-time on the site, and even farther from being able to hire a staff to do even more. At the same time, meeting our first goal is encouraging; we have taken down our fundraising banner in the site's header for the time being, and will put it up some time closer to the end of the year when we set another short-term goal.

The donation links remain in the header and footer if you want to donate even before the banner reappears!

Thank you so much to all of the people who supported us financially and helped us meet our goals. And thank you also to all the people who have been visiting our site, reading our articles, and sharing and engaging with them on social media. We hope that you keep up both the support, and keep using and appreciating the resource that we are creating!

Archive of All Blogs

2022 Year-End Summary: Successes & New Goals, February 15th, 2023

New Databases Linked: Flora of North America & NatureServe Explorer, November 11th, 2022

All Range Maps 2nd Generation, Taxonomic Updates, & Fundraising Goal Met!, September 29th, 2022

More Range Map Improvements, POWO Interlinking, And Notes Fields, June 7th, 2022

Ecoregion-Based Plant Lists and Search, March 30th, 2022

Progress Updates on Range Maps and More, February 10th, 2022

The Vision for bplant.org, December 9th, 2021

New Server: Software & Hardware, August 30th, 2021

More & Improved Plant Range Maps, July 19th, 2021

A Control Section for Invasive Plants, April 15th, 2021

Progress Bars & State Ecoregion Legends, March 11th, 2021

Our 2020 Achievements, February 9th, 2021

Interlinking Databases for Plant Research, November 11th, 2020

A New Homepage, Highlighting Our Articles, July 29th, 2020

A False Recovery, But North Carolina's Ecoregions are Complete!, June 9th, 2020

We're Back After COVID-19 Setbacks, April 3rd, 2020

Help Us Find Ecoregion Photos, February 27th, 2020

What We Achieved in 2019, December 30th, 2019

Plant Comparison and ID Guides, October 30th, 2019

We Are Now Accepting Donations, October 14th, 2019

US State Ecoregion Maps, New Footer, Ecoregion Article Progress, and References, September 19th, 2019

Tentative Range Maps of Native Plants, August 12th, 2019

Ecoregion Locator and Interactive Maps, July 10th, 2019

Using Ecoregions Over Political Boundaries, May 13th, 2019

How We Handle Wild vs Cultivated Plants, April 16th, 2019

A Blog To Keep People Updated On Our Progress, April 8th, 2019

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