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bplant.org Blog

What We Achieved in 2019

December 30th, 2019 by Alex Zorach

2019 has been an extraordinary year for bplant.org! From our launch in January to now, we have made incredible strides both in developing the programming behind the site, and populating the site with articles, maps, images, and other data.

Here we summarize what we've accomplished in the past year, and highlight our progress towards various goals.

Plant Articles & Photos

We have published 35 articles, meaning that the articles are listed on on plant list and also able to be indexed and returned in external web searches. However, we have 6174 stub entries for plant species. Of these, a total of 287 articles are under construction, with some written content, and 120 of them have a main or featured image. You can read any of the incomplete articles and stub entries by searching for the plants by common or scientific name in the search box at the top of each page.

We also added 701 plant photos. These images include both original photography and open-licensed images including public domain works and ones with Creative Commons licensing. We show the licensing for each image, and we use open-licensed images whenever possible, so you can bplant.org as a repository of freely usable plant photographs to use in your own educational materials.

This is one of our original photos, showing the leaf scar of an eastern black walnut (Juglans nigra); this photo appears in our guide on distinguishing black walnut from butternut. Photo © Alex Zorach, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Plant Comparison / ID Guides

We have completed 29 plant comparison / ID guides, and we have 27 more that are partially complete and still viewable. We have focused on plant species common in eastern North America, and compared them to the species they are most commonly confused with.

Here are the complete guides we published in 2019:
We set these guides up so that the images of the most important ID characteristics are automatically made into a collage when sharing them on social media. Try for yourself pasting the URL of one of these guides into Facebook or Twitter and see the collage appear!

The four images on the left here show Norway Maple (Acer platanoides), whereas on the right are pictures of a Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum).

Ecoregion Maps & Locator

The ecoregion section of our site is our crowning achievement that has progressed much more quickly than we had anticipated. We successfully imported data on 3 levels of ecoregions for all of North America, and 4 for the continental united states. We generated interactive maps for all of these regions, and also generated maps of the ecoregions of all lower 48 states. You can reach these from the "Regions" tab at the top of each page, and there are also further links in the page footer.

We also developed and published an ecoregion locator, which can enable you to pin a point on a map and see the full hierarchy of regions that the point is in.

Ecoregion Articles & Images

One of our moderate-term goals is to write articles and find illustrative images for each of the ecoregions listed on our site. As there are a total of 1209 articles to be written, this is an ambitious undertaking. We currently have articles completed for 222 regions, and 6 more under construction. 51 articles currently have images.

However, regionally, we have created a more complete landscape of ecoregions for the Mid-atlantic and northeast. For example, we have completed ecoregion articles on all the level 4 ecoregions of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachussets, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

This map of New York shows all the state's ecoregions; all these articles are complete and many have images. You can find maps of the other states under ecoregions by US State, which you can access in the footer of any page.

We have been expanding out regionally, but also prioritizing ecoregions near major population centers throughout the U.S. This will help us to first cover the regions most relevant to people viewing our site.

Range Maps & Distribution Info

One of our key goals is the development and maintenance of plant range maps based on ecoregions rather than political boundaries.

We began our foray into range maps by importing data to auto-generate range maps of native plants in the continental U.S., and we have published around 6000 such maps, although they have numerous shortcomings as we explained in our August blog post.

However, we are also well underway building range maps for introduced (including invasive) plants. For a preview, see our range map for garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), which to our knowledge is the first published ecoregion-based range map of garlic mustard in North America; that map is currently accurate to level 3 ecoregions.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is one of the most important and ecologically-damaging invasive plants in North America; this range map shows which level 3 ecoregions it has been introduced to, and also shows one region where it is persistent in gardens (due to irrigation) but does not survive in the wild.

Donations & Finances

We began accepting donations in mid-October, using Liberapay to facilitate regular donations. We raised a total of $158.34, representing donations of $164 and $5.66 in processing fees, amounting to 3.45% of donations. The only dedicated costs associated with bplant.org were $20.17 paid to our domain registrar and cloud hosting provider.

These (and future finances) will also be viewable in our finances page, which is linked in the footer. Our goal is to be more transparent even than most non-profit organizations, both so that you can know how we are being run, and to set an example to inspire other organizations to be more open.

Please consider donating if you have not yet done so! We have not put much energy into soliciting donations; the more readily people donate, the less effort and resources we will need to put into fundraising, and the more we can put into directly working on the site. If you have not already done so, you can read our blog post about accepting donations and contact us if you have more questions!

Social Media Presence

In 2019 we first created a Facebook page, and later in the year, also created accounts on Twitter and Instagram. You can find these social media profiles, along with any others that we may add later, in the footer at the bottom of each page.

We hope to use our social media accounts for multiple purposes: one is to publicize our site and reach new people interested in our site. A second is educational, by posting tidbits of informational material that may reach a broader audience of people who never actually visit the site. A third is interactive, to start a conversation and engage with people who have something to say about our site or about any topics we cover.

Our Instagram is our newest social media account!

User Accounts and Interactive Features

We also developed a lot of the site's interactive features, including user profiles and the ability to upload photos and submit observations of plants and take notes on those observations. We also have a small group of users testing these features.

However, we have not been prioritizing development of this aspects of the site for several reasons. One, we do not wish to duplicate the efforts of existing sites like iNaturalist, which already do an oustanding job of more casual reporting of living organisms, including plants.

We have been prioritizing more educational and informational content, because it is a weak point in the landscape of other plant websites. The plan is to make bplant.org focus on helping people develop more rigorous plant identification skills and also learn more about plants' ecology. People already experienced with how to identify plants can then use bplant.org to report observations in ways that can directly help us to build and tweak range maps and track plant populations with relevance to conservation efforts. People who want help with more elementary plant ID questions can use other sites including iNaturalist and various plant ID apps.

What's next?

In 2020, we plan to continue much of what we have already been doing, but we also have some exciting new undertakings.

One key project, already well underway, is the development of a tool for building and maintaining plant range maps, which will help us to construct and update these maps with a minimum expenditure of time and effort. This will allow us to advance our goals of building range maps for introduced species and addressing shortcomings in our range maps of native species.

As our body of articles, ecoregions, and plant range maps and ID guides becomes more complete, you can expect to see new features such as the ability to generate plant lists by ecoregion, and the ability to keep track of which plants you are learning to identify in your particular regions.

We look forward to seeing you in 2020!

Plant Comparison and ID Guides

October 30th, 2019 by Alex Zorach

One of the biggest challenges with plants is accurately identifying them. Many people do not even have names for the majority of plants they see as they go through the day. Even among gardeners and others who work closely with plants, misidentifying plants is common.

Why is plant identification important?

Plant identification opens the door to learning about individual plants and enables us to make better choices involving plants. Knowing a plant's name enables you to research its range, native vs. introduced status, growing conditions, growth habit and characteristics, ecological relationships, uses, control methods, and more.

In many cases, ID characteristics and ecology go hand in hand. For instance, the smooth bark of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) reflects its vulnerability to fire, whereas the rugged bark of the bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) reflects its fire resistance.

The smooth bark of the American beech is a key ID characteristic, but also reflects this species' vulnerability to fire. Thick, rugged bark provides insulation to protect trees from fire. Beeches and other thin-barked trees thus tend to occur only in consistently-moist habitats that do not experience wildfires. Photo by Claire Secrist, Public Domain.

If you are managing a wild area for native plants, being able to reliably ID plants can tell you which species to remove and which to encourage. You can gather seeds from wild populations, and grow them in your garden, or get them established in wild areas you are working to restore.

Misidentification can have consequences. Some poisonous plants look disturbingly similar to common food plants, and some plants such as poison ivy can even be dangerous to touch. In many cases, native plants can look similar to closely-related invasive plants. Nurseries can mislabel plants, and cultivars can complicate matters by altering the characteristics typically used to identify plants. Even when plants are not invasive, a mis-identification can lead to growing something in a garden or landscape that is poorly suited to the site. A mis-ID'ed plant may die if planted in unsuitable conditions, or it may grow larger than wanted and require costly pruning or cause property damage.

Poison hemlock, pictured here, looks similar to parsley and carrots. This similarity can be dangerous because the plant is highly toxic. This plant belongs to the carrot family (Apiaceae) which is notorious for containing both poisonous plants and food plants, many of which are hard to tell apart.

Plant Comparison Guides: Side-by-Side Comparisons

With these purposes in mind, we are excited to announce our publishing of plant comparison guides!

Our plant comparison guides take two species that overlap in range and are commonly confused, and compare them side-by-side in a table.

This screenshot shows how the table appears on a desktop device or other device with a wide screen; the table collapses gracefully on small mobile devices as well.

How are we choosing which guides to write?

We have been using data from iNaturalist, a citizen science
website and app, and focusing on plants that are commonly misidentified in photos on that site. One of the weaknesses of iNaturalist is that their site is littered with misidentifications, but this weakness can be turned into an asset because the site's active user base of casual users provides an excellent source of data on which plants are most commonly confused. Because the data comes from real observations in the wild, it also takes into account the increased likelihood of confusion based on plants whose ranges and habitat overlap.

However, even using iNaturalist as a guide, there are potentially thousands of these comparisons that we could be writing, so prioritization is critical. We want to write the guides that people most want to read. If you have a specific guide that you would like us to write, please get in touch!

Where can you find these guides on our site?

Currently, any published guides are displayed on the page for each species. There is a new "Similar Plants" section, and a link to it will be displayed in the table of contents at the top of each page that has such a section. This section is different from the "Related Plants" section that some articles have; the "similar plants" section is primarily for plants that are visually confused. They may or may not be related.

For example, Box Elder (Acer negundo) is a maple, but with its compound leaves it is more often confused with poison ivy or ash trees, and less frequently with other maples. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), on the other hand, has a more "typical" maple leaf and thus it is more often confused with other maples. Pictured here is the page of comparisons for sugar maple:

You can find completed comparison guides in the "Similar Species" section. Click "View" to be taken to the page for that species, or "Compare" to view the comparison and ID guide.

Check out the guides for yourself!

Here is a sampling of some of the guides we have completed:We hope you enjoy these guides and find them useful!

And please send us your requests! You can ask us to make comparisons for a specific plant, a specific pair of plants, or a specific set of features for a pair of plants (such as if we haven't yet shown a picture of the bark, or flowers, or buds of a particular tree.)

And let us know if you have any corrections, find any major omissions, or have any photographs that you think could improve on our offerings. We want our ID guides to be as good as they can be!

Also, if you have not yet done so, please consider donating to support our work!

We Are Now Accepting Donations

October 14th, 2019 by Alex Zorach

Pic of Alex Zorach
Hello! I'm Alex Zorach, the founder and currently sole administrator and author for bplant.org.

I have worked on bplant.org for over a year as a side project with no compensation, while using other sources of income to sustain my work. I would like to raise funding for bplant.org. Funding could help the project progress faster by allowing me to dedicate more time to it, and by hiring others if we receive enough funding.

I am publishing an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) to address some of the questions people have raised when I've talked about donations. You can find this FAQ in the site footer, under Support Us » FAQ. I will keep the permanent FAQ up-to-date as anything changes.

Donation and Funding FAQ

Why is this project important? What does it offer beyond existing websites?

Discussion of plant blindness, the decline of insect populations, and increased knowledge of the importance of native plants have led to a surge of interest in plant identification, tracking the native vs. introduced ranges of plants, and the ecological relationships among plants and between plants and other organizations.

bplant.org aims to address these issues beyond existing websites in two primary ways: a greater focus on ecology and a new technology and development model.

The focus on ecology includes discussion of habitat, life-cycle, and faunal associations of specific plants. This focus on ecology also involves highlighting ecoregions rather than political boundaries. It also involves new ways of tracking and distinguishing wild vs. cultivated plants, as well as native vs. introduced plants.
Maps like this interactive map of Maryland, which we have published for all lower 48 states, take existing data published by the US EPA and other organizations, and present it in a new format that is more interactive and easier to explore.

Technologically, we use a rapid, sustainable development model. Responsive design creates a unified experience between desktop computers and mobile devices, allowing mobile users full access to all site features without downloading an app. Our lean approach to web design creates pages that load quickly and place lighter burdens on processors, thus reducing carbon emissions associated with electricity usage. Our site has experienced almost no downtime, with only a few minutes total downtime so far in 2019, contrasting with the USDA PLANTS database and BONAP, both of which that have experienced hours or days in which their site was totally inaccessible during this period.

Our technological approach has allowed us to achieve a lot in a short period of time, and will continue to do so.

How can I donate money?

We currently accept donations through Liberapay, which accepts payments through Credit Cards or Paypal. You can donate here, and you can also find the donation link in the site footer. We chose to use Liberapay because it allows you to make recurring donations, because it is free open-source software, and because it charges no additional fees beyond payment processing. For large donations, if you are interested in a greater portion of the proceeds reaching us (Paypal or Stripe, credit card processors, take around 3% of a typical transaction) please contact us about donating by personal check.

If you are interested in donating money but neither of these options work for you, please get in touch and we can work something out.

How can I support bplant.org if I can't or don't want to donate?

If you want to support us financially but either lack the means to do so, or just don't want to, you can ask others to donate on your behalf, as a gift. You can also share this post or our donation link with others who may be more likely to donate.
Our post about the ecoregion locator had a total of 68 shares and reached over 500 people through Facebook alone; re-sharing our posts helps us in multiple ways.

You can also help us a lot by sharing or linking to our site in general. Not only does sharing indirectly help us raise funds, but, more importantly, it helps our educational resources reach a broader audience, furthering our mission. Greater visits to our site also help us get better data on what information there is demand for, which helps us to better prioritize our work.

Why would I donate to a business or individual that is not a non-profit organization?

An organization being a 501(c)(3) organization in the United States, or any other type of legally-recognized non-profit organization, is a formality that affords certain tax advantages to organizations that are structured and run in a specified way. An organization's non-profit status is not a guarantee that the organization conducts itself in a way most people would deem charitable. For example, some charities pay their CEO's salaries over $1 million annually (source), and if you look specifically at hospitals and large health clinics, there are many people paid over $5 million in salaries and an overwhelming majority of such organizations paying their top executives over $1 million (source).

For an overwhelming majority of people, there is no tax benefit to donating to a non-profit. Charitable tax deductions in the U.S. are only available to those who itemize deductions. The 2017 Tax Reforms in the U.S. hugely reduced the portion of people who benefit from itemizing deductions. Even if you do personally itemize deductions, you can still achieve more good in the world by giving to a non-tax-deductible cause if that cause is achieving more with your money.

I am committed to running bplant.org with financial transparency that goes above and beyond how typical non-profit organizations are run, publishing our income and expenses in easy-to-understand documents on our website.

How and where will you use the money?

We have negligible costs currently, because of piggybacking on the other websites managed by Merit Exchange LLC, which include RateTea, a site currently with much more traffic than bplant.org, and several other websites. However, as bplant.org scales up to have more traffic, we may need to pay a small amount for cloud hosting and other technology services including email.

Initially, most of the income will be used to pay me (Alex Zorach). This will allow me to dedicate more time to working on the site. If we reach a sufficient threshold, we will hire others. I am committed to never paying any individual more than about $88K annually (in 2019 dollars, adjusted for inflation) and would hire another person well before paying myself a salary this high. This figure is based on inflation-adjusting a 2010 study that found that increases in personal incomes over $75,000 do not affect happiness. A 2018 Study found similar results.

We may also donate money to organizations whose work, resources, or data we use, to nature preserves or land conservation organizations, and other organizations that closely align with our mission, especially when the work is directly related to material on our site.

What are some results that could be facilitated by more funding?

With more funding the following projects could advance more quickly:
  • Refining plant range maps, and completing range maps for non-native/introduced species, as described in this blog post.

  • Completing articles on all ecoregions of the continental U.S., and more broadly, North America, including Mexico and Canada.

  • Completing and expanding more plant articles

  • Adding more photos, both of plants and ecoregions

  • Developing plant ID guides
In addition, we could undertake more forward-looking work, such as integrating with existing plant websites and databases, and further developing the interactive features of our site.

How can we trust that you will use the money to make a difference in the world?

One of the best indicators of how an organization will use money is the work it is already doing. Since our launch in 2019, we have published hundreds of articles, ecoregion maps of North America, and tentative range maps of most plants native to North America. We also have developed and tested many of the interactive features of the site for tracking and reporting plant observations.

And we've done all of this with zero funding whatsoever.

Many organizations have achieved a lot less than the work we've already done, with significant budgets and personnel. You've seen what we can do, and you can expect more of the same! Funding will primarily ensure that we can continue doing what we already have been doing, and that we can do more of it, as well as continually improving the quality of the resources we have already created.

Are you seeking any income or monetizing the site in other ways?

For bplant.org, not currently. The other sites run by Merit Exchange LLC generate income through advertising and affiliate links. I would rather keep advertisement or affiliate links either off bplant.org entirely, or to a minimum. However, I have considered seeking income through these methods. The best way to ensure bplant.org remains fully advertising-free is to donate money so that there is no need to resort to these other income sources. Without any donations, I will probably eventually add at least some minimal advertising in order to cover server costs and provide some minimal compensation as the site grows. I have also considered an institutional subscription model as some educational institutions subscribe to various databases and open journals.

Since I am actively soliciting funding, if I do earn any income associated with bplant.org through advertising, affiliate links, or other sources, I will publish the gross earnings from these other sources as well.

Any more questions?

Please get in touch! I am eager to answer any further questions from anyone considering donating!

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