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Help Us Find Ecoregion Photos

February 27th, 2020 by Alex Zorach

One of the things we have been focusing on over the past few months is adding photos to our ecoregion articles. Of the 165 articles we have completed on Level 4 ecoregions (the finest level of detail on our site) we have added images to 77 of these, which means that a lot of articles still lack images. Some of the higher-level regions also need images.

We have been selecting images that illustrate the aspects of topograpy and vegetation cover that make each region unique. We want the photos to visually reinforce what our article describes in words.

Do you have any photos we could use?

We are still missing visuals for a large number of ecoregions, including many where we have completed articles. If you live in or near one of the regions for which we do not have a photo, and you either have taken one yourself (or could take one) that you would like to contribute, or if you know of an open-licensed photo that we could use, please get in touch with us.

We have been searching Flickr and Wikimedia Commons for suitable photos, but searching is time-consuming, and any photos you can point us to will save us valuable time that we can commit to working on other aspects of the site. Also, if you know of a large repository of open-licensed images that may help us, please let us know about that too!

What makes a good photo?

The best photos:
  • show the topography of the land, which often involves being shot from an overlook, observation tower, or the summit of a hill or mountain. Aerial photos taken from a low altitude are often ideal for flatter regions.
  • show the typical land use in the region.
  • show the typical vegetation cover, ideally with a deep depth of field so as to show both a closeup of some vegetation, and a whole ecosystem in the background.
  • illustrate aspects of the region that make it different from its surroundings.
  • are aesthetically pleasing and have good composition and lighting.
  • either are in the public domain or have an open license that allows reuse, such as CC BY, or CC BY-SA. We avoid licenses with NC (non-commercial) clauses because they can pose problems when combining works with CC BY-SA licenses, as well as unpredictable legal problems in some EU states.
It's not always possible for a single photo to do all of these at once, but we seek out photos that do as many of them as possible. At a bare minimum, the photo must show the region and we must be legally allowed to use it, so copyrighted photos must be accompanied by permission from the photographer or copyright holder for us to use it.

Winter photos can sometimes be excellent for showing the terrain and also drawing attention to evergreens in a landscape of mostly-deciduous plants.

Photo Gallery: Highlights

Here are some of the best photos we have added recently; the captions explain some of why we chose these photos:

Midcoast

This photo taken near Cushing Briggs, ME, shows a typical Midcoast scenery, with a rocky shoreline with coastal islands and peninsulas. The nutrient-poor areas adjacent to the water are usually dominated by conifers, with white pine dominant here. This is a crop and edit of a photo by Rich Brooks. Photo © Rich Brooks, CC BY 2.0, Source.

Glaciated High Allegheny Plateau

This photo shows the Pine Creek Gorge in Tioga County, from the Mid State Trail at Gillespie Point, which illustrates the typical landscape in this region. The hills are steep but smooth, and the forests are mostly deciduous but with some conifers. Photo © Nicholas A. Tonelli, CC BY 2.0, Source.

Northern Limestone/Dolomite Valleys

This photo, from Limestone Township, PA, shows a typical scene of farms, reflective of most of this region. The forested ridge in the distance is part of the sandstone ridges that this small, relatively flat valley is nestled between. Photo © Gerry Dincher, CC BY-SA 2.0, Source.

Chesapeake-Pamlico Lowlands and Tidal Marshes

This photo shows a tidal marsh at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, one of the larger preserves in the Chesapeake-Pamlico Lowlands and Tidal Marshes region. Low-lying marshy areas are dominated by grasses, and woody plants are only found on higher ground, visible here in the distance. Photo © Robert Pos, CC BY 2.0, Source.

Southern Crystalline Ridges and Mountains

This photo, taken from the Green Knob Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, shows the typical landscape of the Southern Crystalline Ridges and Mountains of the Blue Ridge mountains, with rugged, forested mountains with well-dissected flanks. Photo © Ron Cogswell, CC BY 2.0, Source.

New River Plateau

This photo taken in Independence, Virginia, shows a landscape typical of the New River Plateau, with pastureland on the lower, flatter terain, and forest on the steeper uplands. The soil is visibly rocky and shallow and the terrain is irregularly hilly. Photo © Joe Haupt, CC BY-SA 2.0, Source.

Looking for the collage that showed up when this was shared on social media? You can find it here.

Now that you have a good idea of what we are looking for, if you think you may have something to contribute, you can explore our ecoregions via the US state maps, our ecoregion locator, or browsing all of North America, and see if you have or know of any suitable photos for a region where we do not have one yet.

And, even if you aren't able to help in this way, please enjoy what is already there on our site; the main purpose of these articles is educational, so having more people reading the articles and looking at the existing photos is helping us achieve our goals as well!

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!

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