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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 ยป 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!

US State Ecoregion Maps, New Footer, Ecoregion Article Progress, and References

September 19th, 2019 by Alex Zorach

We are pleased to announce a number of different types of progress that we've made over the past several weeks, including publishing US State Ecoregion Maps, a new site footer, completion of more ecoregion articles, and a reference system on articles.

US State Ecoregion Maps

Although we've had maps of the ecoregions themselves since July, we more recently published ecoregion maps of all lower 48 U.S. states. The maps show an outline of county boundaries to help people place the regions relative to familiar borders.

The map of Pennsylvania is particularly illustrative of what these maps offer:

You can easily access a list of all these maps through the site's new footer.

A New Footer

At the bottom of each page on the site, you can see our new footer. The footer provides one-click access to key pages of the site, including the state ecoregion maps and the ecoregion locator (that looks up the regions for a town, address, or point on a map). The footer displays as columns on desktop browsers and collapses into rows on small mobile devices.

The bottom row contains links to our social media accounts, which right now is just Facebook, but we will add others over time. The footer has ample room for more links as we continue developing the site.

Progress on Completing Ecoregion Articles

As there are 181 level 3 ecoregions in North America and 967 level 4 ecoregions in the continental U.S., completing articles on these is a huge amount of work. However, we've made significant progress. As of today, we have written 100 articles on the level 4 regions and 32 on the level 3 regions. We also have articles on all level 1 and 2 regions. This places us at over 17% done with level 3 regions and over 10% done with level 4 regions.

State-wise, our articles for every region in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts are complete, and we are close to completing Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and New England. We have initially focused on regions near the mid-Atlantic region where we are located, but we plan to turn soon to also cover the ecoregions near major population centers throughout North America, as our site has been growing and attracting interest and viewers from all over.

A Reference System on Articles

If you check the articles, you will find that they now contain a list of one or more references. This is part of a new reference system that we have developed; this system is also integrated into our whole site, so sources can be seamlessly added to plant articles and other pages of the site.

The reference system is designed so that individual references can be modified or updated and the changes will automatically be reflected on all pages of the site. The system can also automatically-generate citations from standard formats used by most peer-reviewed journals, which will make this aspect of our site more efficient to maintain.

We also have a footnote system under development, to produce clickable in-text citations.

The references serve multiple purposes:
  • Showing people they can trust our articles - Unreferenced work can be dangerous in its potential to spread falsehoods. The references provide a way for people to know where our information comes from and verify it in the original sources.
  • Pointing people to further research - In many cases, the referenced work is much more extensive than our brief summary articles, and it in turn references massive volumes of literature. The references thus give a starting point to people who wish to dive into a subject in more depth.
  • Giving credit - The work we have done with our ecoregion maps and articles is not so much new or original research, as it is a new way of presenting and summarizing research and work that was carried out by numerous others over a period of many years. We want to credit these people and draw attention to their contributions.
  • Helping people sort out or track down inaccurate or disputed info - No research is perfect, and there are numerous errors and inconsistencies in the body of written work describing plants and ecoregions. By showing where our information comes from, we hope to make it easier to detect and resolve these errors and inconsistencies.
The system is also built so that in the long-run, it will be easy to conduct searches of references by author, title, or publication, and also pull up lists of which articles on our site reference which sources.

Thank you for your continued enthusiasm and support!

Our site has been live for a little over 8 months now, and is still incomplete, yet we've already seen huge outpourings of engagement, enthusiasm, and support on social media. This is encouraging, as our biggest purpose and goal is to help the information we are publishing reach as large an audience as possible, so that we can ultimately help restore and protect our ecosystems.

Thank you to everyone who has helped share our site! We will continue to post about our progress!

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