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The Vision for bplant.org

December 9th, 2021 by Alex Zorach

I started bplant.org both because I have big goals and dreams, and because I believe I have a realistic plan for bringing those dreams into being. However, I need to enlist the help of many others in order to achieve these dreams. This post outlines the driving purpose behind bplant.org, including both what the goals are and how I plan to get there, and it concludes with what you can do to help us get there.

Our Vision for the World

It is an unfortunate reality that humans today are adversely affecting the environment and endangering biodiversity. Loss of high-quality, wild habitats, combined with pollution and other environmental problems, are leading to an unprecedented loss of species. In most cases, we are replacing diverse wild habitats with low-biodiversity areas, such as agricultural monocultures, paved surfaces, or manicured suburban lawns.

The resources that we humans expend interacting with plants, resources that could be used to protect, preserve, and restore biodiversity, in practice are often not, and instead are even doing harm. Commercial nurseries propagate, grow, and sell plants which are then transported and planted by gardeners, landscapers, and property owners. People expend money, time, and other material resources such as fuel in the process of planting, caring for, and pruning and mowing plants. But often, nurseries are propagating, growing, and selling non-native plants, some of which become invasive, many of which are poor at supporting insects and the food web, and none of which do anything to support the locally-native flora. And at times, people unnecessarily clear areas of high biodiversity and replace them with sterile landscaping.

In our vision for the world, these resources would be directed to have a positive effect on our ecosystems. Nurseries could collect seed from local plant populations, preserving local varieties and breeding more vigorous versions of locally-threatened plants, and then selling them locally to gardeners and conservationists alike. And as gardeners and landscapers, whether professionals, hobbyists, or property owners, bought and planted these plants, the seeds would spread back out into wild ecosystems, strengthening the local plant populations. Both on people's property, and in the wild, these species would then support insects and other animals. Such efforts could even preserve and restore endangered or locally-extirpated species.
Locally-native plants like this spotted joe pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) in Indiana tend to be better at supporting the food web than introduced plants. Not only are the flowers attractive to pollinators, but the plant is also eaten by insects. This species has wind-dispersed seeds, and can thus easily spread out of gardens into the wild. Photo © Indiana Ivy Nature Photography (Flickr), CC BY 2.0, Source.

In addition, a lot of resources would be freed up by virtue of people making better choices about which plants to plant. Pruning needs would be minimized by people choosing plants whose maximum sizes were appropriate to the site. Replacement needs for dead trees, shrubs, or perennials, would be minimal because people would pick species adapted to the conditions of each site. People would know the value of large dead wood, dead plant stems, and leaf litter, and would leave these things in place when safe to do so, instead of expending unnecessary energy to remove these things from the environment (and thus expending money in a way that reduces biodiversity.)

People would not mindlessly kill volunteer plant seedlings that come up in unexpected places. They would remove invasive plants or other unwanted plants, but identify valuable native plant seedlings and move them to more desirable spots, share them with others, or possibly even sell them.

And perhaps most importantly, people would recognize the value of plant bidiversity: they would see lush, diverse growth of plants, wild areas and semi-wild components of landscaping as beautiful. There would be no battles with homeowners associations (HOA's) or municipal governments; rather the HOA's and municipal governments would be populated by ecologically-minded people who were spearheading conservation efforts and educating homeowners. People would no longer see biodiversity and ecologically-sound landscaping as at odds with the goal of increasing property values, but rather, as essential for maintaining property values.

Much of the energy people currently spend struggling and fighting against each other and against the environment would be freed up. The massive savings of money, person-hours, and other resources, could be put towards preserving and protecting biodiversity. Resources currently expended pruning trees and shrubs too big for a site, or mowing or clearing areas that don't need to be cleared, could instead be put towards removing invasive species. Resources currently put towards planting non-native (and some soon-to-become-invasive) plants could instead be put towards site-suitable native plantings that would have a restorative effect on the ecosystems.

We could "have our cake and eat it too", enjoying a higher quality of life, for lower cost, and having a positive impact on the environment rather than a negative one.

Economic Benefits as Well

Plants provide real value, even cash value, and even outside of an agricultural setting. Trees reduce wind speed and moderate temperature, reducing heating and cooling bills, and also making it more pleasant for people to spend time outdoors. Plants produce food and other useful products. Dense plant growth can slow runoff and increase soil permeability, reducing the risk and severity of damaging (and costly) floods. Plants store water, increase infiltration of water to the water table, and can buffer against drought and aid replenishment of aquifers. Wetland vegetation filters water and improves water quality downstream, which protects waterways and even commercial fisheries. And the improvement of air and water quality that comes with healthier ecosystems benefits us all.
Vegetation, especially wetlands and forests along riparian corridors, plays a critical role in cleaning water and air, and reducing the risk of flooding, and stabilizing the water table and protecting against drought. Humans benefit from all of these ecosystem services. Photo © Dan Keck, Public Domain, Source.

Just as the burning of fossil fuels is an economic "dead-end" that generates value only once while also causing harmful externalities like pollution, many of the above examples of waste related to the misguided planting or maintenance of plants, are similarly economic dead-ends. A plant unsuited to the site that needs to be repeatedly pruned, a plant that dies and needs to be replaced, any area that is unnecessarily mowed or cleared, any log unnecessarily mulched, any flower bed over-mulched, represents wasted resources that create no real value for society. Such cases often destroy value and create negative externalities.

When we move away from such dead-end expenditures, towards ones that create more value, in the long-run, we create more business opportunities and more jobs as well. Realizing our vision involves many highly-skilled jobs in which people could be self-actualizing, feeling a deep sense of purpose and meaning, earning money while making the world a better place.

How bplant.org Can Help Us Achieve This Vision

The challenge of getting from where we are now to the idealistic vision of where we want to be is ultimately met by information and education. There is one reason common to all of the environmentally harmful, "dead-end" behaviors described above: people do all of these things because they don't know better. The solution is education, which bplant.org addresses from multiple angles: as a reference, and through direct advocacy through articles, and through our activity on social media. As the site develops we also plan to advance these goals through interactive features that facilitate such learning.

There are already numerous educational resources, native plant advocates, and environmental organizations out there. But, to see that these resources are not enough, that something more is needed, we only need to look at the world around us. Our vision is not yet realized, so something additional must be necessary.
Weedy plants without showy flowers, like American burnweed (Erechtites hieraciifolius) can be just as important for the ecosystem as ones that satisfy conventional human aesthetic senses. Photo © Michael Kummer, Public Domain, Source.

I think bplant.org not only can, but already does offer something that goes beyond existing resources out there. Much of what I have already created addresses unmet needs that I myself had when I first started researching plants online years ago. Some of our key innovations include the ecological focus to our articles, our ecoregion-based range maps, our side-by-side comparison/ID guides, and at times, the simple fact that we are among the most vocal parties who are talking about certain issues that need to be talked about, such as the need for preserving the local population genetics, or the need to protect "weedy" or conventionally "non-aesthetic" plants.

Another major undertaking is to take already public information and repackage it into a more accessible form. For example, our ecoregion maps and articles take material published by the US EPA, CEC, and other organizations, that assumes extensive background in geology and/or forestry, and make it accessible to a more general audience. Our plant ID guides also take information from dichotomous keys and more technical flora manuals, and make it accessible to people with less knowledge of botanical terminology.

We need staff to fully realize our vision.

My long-term vision for bplant.org is as an organization with a staff, that can not only maintain the site, but continually improve it. If you like what you have been seeing, keep in mind that this is what I have been able to accomplish without even working on the site full-time. More funding would facilitate some obvious results, including:
  • Completion of all ecoregion articles - This goal is one of the most quickly attainable; just over 30% of these articles are complete.
  • Completion and improvement of range maps - Although we have made huge strides in our ecoregion-based range maps, a lot of work remains. The data underlying these maps also will serve as a foundation for plant lists, a feature we plan on launching in early 2022, allowing users to generate lists of plants native to their particular ecoregion.
  • Completion of articles on important plant species - And also completion of more esoteric species as well.
  • Creation of more ID guides - There are still countless ID guides for which there is strong demand, which we have yet to create.
  • Adding of more images to articles and guides - Although nearly all completed plant articles have many images, there is always room for adding more illustrative photographs. Many of our completed ecoregion articles still lack images entirely.
However, there are also some goals which might be less obvious, long-term, which would require more work. these include:
  • Better publicity - bplant.org's ultimate goal is to preserve and protect plant biodiversity through information and education. We will be better able to do this if we are able to better share and publicize our resources. Our blog posts and posts on social media already get a high amount of engagement, but posting on social media is time-consuming, as is writing, and time I spend on social media can take away from my work on the rest of the site.

  • Refining ecoregion data - Beyond the obvious next-step of making our range maps accurate to level 4 ecoregions, in the long-run I would like to revisit the GIS data itself. In the course of our work we have already encountered numerous problems and limitations with the ecoregion data provided by the CEC and US EPA, such as instances where the borders correspond poorly to geologic maps and aerial photos. Also, for the purposes of plant range maps, the level of detail in some level 4 ecoregions in insufficient, mainly for regions that span long distances. We would like to add another level of detail in order to build as accurate as possible range maps.

  • New interactive features you may not have even imagined - Perhaps tools to allow nurseries to list particular locally-sourced plants they are selling, or land management tools that could allow property owners to display information about opportunities for volunteers to help with invasive plant control or native plant reseeding efforts. Perhaps plant lists that can be filtered and sorted by attributes such as plants' habitat requirements, life cycle, height, or other characteristics.

Financing Our Vision

We will need money to realize our vision. I want to keep as much information freely accessible as possible, and I want to avoid distracting advertisements so as to maximize the reach of the information and the usability of the site.

I have been working on bplant.org for over three years with only minimal compensation, supporting myself through other income sources. I am now turning to a fundraising drive to realize this vision, and I ideally want it to be as quick and effective as possible so I can turn my attention back to working on the project.

Our Fundraising Goals

I have set a three-tiered goal for fundraising, including short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. The short-term goal is to raise $5,000 by year's end, 2021. The medium-term goal is an annual budget of $70,000, which I would like to meet as soon as possible. This figure would allow me to work on the project full-time with a reasonable salary, cover all the site's expenses even if hosting needs increase, and have some discretionary spending left over.

A longer-term goal is an annual budget of $300,000; this would allow us to hire multiple full-time people to expand the offerings of the site. Our ideal fundraising scenario would be to meet the $70k annual budget goal quickly, but take longer to reach this larger, more ambitious goal so that we can have time to scale up our organization effectively. If we exceeded our $70k goal before we had time to create the structure to hire employees, we would donate more to related organizations, and set aside some money to create an endowment to generate investment income so that the organization would not be as dependent on direct donations in the long-run.

These amounts may seem large, but they are small relative to the budgets of many organizations, and they are also small relative to the savings and indirect economic gains for society as a whole resulting from this project. Donating to this project thus represents an efficient use of money.

How You Can Give

We have been accepting recurring donations anonymously through Liberapay for nearly two years now. This system will remain in place for donors who wish to remain anonymous. But we have recently set up a system to accept donations directly through our own site, using Stripe as a payment processor. You can reach our new donation page through the Donate link in the header (top right) of our site, or on the footer of any page where it reads Donate Directly. Besides being a bit simpler, our new system also accepts one-time payments, if you do not wish to sign up for a recurring donation. You can also contact us about other ways of giving.

If you have any further questions, you can consult our Support FAQ, and if there is any question you do not see adequately addressed there, please contact us.

Unable to help financially? There are other ways you can help us, even with financial goals.

This toad, who lives in Goochland County, VA, in the Northern Outer Piedmont, lacks the financial means to donate to our site, but is helping us by showing its beautiful face on this blog post. Photo © stephen, CC BY 4.0, Source.

If you don't have the means to donate currently, you can still help us reach our goals:
  • Talk to others who may be able to donate - Do you have any friends or family who care about protecting biodiversity, and who are in a better financial situation than yourself? You could recommend for them to give, or even ask them to give a donation on your behalf. Asking for such donations as a present is a great way to avoid unwanted material gifts during the holidays, thus protecting the environment in two ways at once!

  • Share this blog post and/or links to our donate page - It can help us a lot. It's no secret that fundraising posts often attract less engagement on social media than is typical; by engaging with these posts you can help them to reach a broader audience, and you can also add commentary about why you think our project is worth supporting.

  • Give us feedback on our site and donation system - Did you catch a typo, error, or glitch? Something that is unclear? Do you have an image that could illustrate a concept on one of our pages that is lacking a relevant image? Get in touch with us!

  • Use our site and share our other material - Whether or not you are able to help us directly with our financial goals, we want our material to get out there to the world. In the long-run, helping us with our other goals will help our fundrasing.
No matter who you are, there is a lot you can do!

Watch Our Progress Towards Our Goals

If you visit the donate page, besides being able to chip in, you can also see our progress towards our goals. Currently the only goal displayed is our short-term goal, but as this is met, we will display our next goal.

If you've read this far, thank you so much for your time! And I sincerely hope that you can join us in this shared vision.

New Server: Software & Hardware

August 30th, 2021 by Alex Zorach

In case you have been wondering about the lack of activity or updates over the past month, we've been working behind-the-scenes to set up a new server. And it is now all set up!

The new server brings both hardware and software upgrades, primarily to ensure the site can continue to function quickly and smoothly even with higher levels of traffic. We received unprecedented traffic after our July publication of new range maps and we want to make sure our infrastructure can keep up with demand!
This photo shows blade servers (narrow, minimal, modular computers) in a data center. These were actually upgraded in 2017, so this photo represents what older servers looked like, not what our present ones do. Photo © Jyrki Huusko, CC BY 2.0, Source.

What will I notice?

Hopefully, you will notice either nothing at all, or slightly faster and more consistent site speed and more consistent uptime.

What has been improved behind-the-scenes?

Our software upgrades have improved both performance and security. We have upgraded to newer versions of various software packages, moving away from older versions that had limited support lifecycles. These moves were necessary to ensure long-term stability. We have rewritten a large portion of our code to be compatible with newer software versions, and we made some tweaks to our databases as well. We also made configuration changes to save time in maintaining the site long-term.

Why is security important for a plant website?

People outside the IT industry might not be aware of how important security is, but even a non-controversial site like bplant is constantly subjected to hacking attempts, as well as other malicious use of the site, such as botnets filling out forms with fake data, or trying to put spam in our contact form or user profiles.

However, we are also planning to start accepting donations and/or subscriptions directly on our site in the near future (currently we accept them only through Liberpay) and allow creation of user accounts by a broader range of people, and these changes will also demand higher standards of security.

Why is speed and efficiency important?

People often perceive website speed and efficiency only as a matter of convenience, but we see it as having deeper importance.

Inefficiency has environmental implications.

Slow site speed often results from inefficient programming and/or design that places unnecessary burdens on CPUs, both of the server hosting a website, and the computers of the people viewing it in their browsers. This burden reflects use of electricity and other resources, many of which are still generated from dirty, non-renewable sources, thus driving climate change and other forms of pollution. Programming efficiency thus has environmental implications.

Many large fans under grates, facing up, in metal boxes, part of the HVAC system of a large building.The fans here are part of the HVAC system of a Houston data center. Websites and other online services use electricity both directly through computers, and indirectly through climate control systems essential to their operation. Photo © I am R. (Flickr), CC BY 2.0, Source.

Even if these effects are small relative to other industries, as our mission and purpose are to preserve, protect, and restore biodiversity, we take all aspects of sustainability seriously, including efficient programming. We also hope that our lean, minimal coding can set an example that other web developers can follow.

Why is uptime important?

We want our site to be available on demand, whenever needed as a reference. Even short periods of downtime (minutes or hours) can be annoying or inconvenient, interrupting people's work, making them to take note of material and return to it later. Longer periods of downtime, such as days, can seriously interrupt workflow and result in people missing deadlines. We are committed to minimize downtime so that people can depend on our site as a resource. We have also structured our site so that we can keep the public-facing, reference components of the site, such as articles, maps, and photos, up even if we ever need to temporarily disable logins or other interactive components.

Slow or unreliable sites limit people's ability to work.

Downtime and slow response speeds also hinders people's ability to use our site as a reference. Anyone looking up a lot of material on our site, clicking around exploring different pages, will either waste time or be kept from doing as much work if the site is slow or unreliable. The work people do that would use our site as a reference, including ecological restoration, native plant gardening or landscaping, invasive plant control, and simply learning about plants, is important, and we want people to be able to do these things more quickly and effectively.

A group of people planting plants on a steep hillside.One of the reasons for making our site fast and reliable is so that people can spend less time at the computer, get their research done quickly, and spend more time outdoors working to protect and restore our ecosystems! Photo from U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Public Domain, Source.

Our behind-the-scene software upgrades are only one of many ways we promote efficiency, but they are an important part.

Go and enjoy the site on our new server!

More & Improved Plant Range Maps

July 19th, 2021 by Alex Zorach

Our range maps use ecoregions rather than political boundaries, which, although more useful for ecological purposes, has made them challenging to build as most sources report plant distribution based on political regions such as states and counties. A little less than two years ago we announced tentative range maps for 5,660 plants native to the continental U.S., but we emphasized that these range maps had numerous limitations and were only a starting point.

We are excited now to announce a major improvement in our range maps. We have now published a total of 16,369 range maps, and of these, 15,232 of the maps are new, with numerous improvements over our first iteration of maps. These maps now cover both native and introduced species in North America. Furthermore, the new maps are more accurate and communicate greater nuance than the old maps.

Limitations of the Old Maps

Our first range maps were derived from the Ecoregional Revegetation Application (ERA) and overestimated plant ranges at the borders of their range, were only available to the resolution of level 3 ecoregions (not the level 4 ecoregions currently used as the finest level of detail on our site), only applied to the continental US, and suffered from limitations inherent in both the source material and methodology used to map them onto ecoregions. On top of this, due to limitations in the ERA data, we were initially missing maps not only on all introduced species, including invasive species, but on many native species as well. The missing maps included many common, widespread, and ecologically-important plants.

Until recently, our progress on range maps had proceeded piecemeal and slowly, with us constructing only isolated, individual range maps.

However, we have been working behind the scenes to improve our tools for researching and constructing maps, and are excited to announce major breakthroughs towards more rapidly improving existing maps and constructing maps for the species that lack them.

Features of the New Maps

New Status Categories / Colors / Legends

Our initial maps had fewer categories for the status of a particular plant in a particular region, mainly native, introduced, and uncertain, with a few other categories that were rarely used. The "uncertain" category was a catch-all designation that could mean either that the presence or absence of a species in a particular region was uncertain, or that its presence was certain, but its establishment method was unknown; in some cases it could signify uncertainty in both the presence and potential establishment method.
Native (Prior to European Colonization)
Introduced (Discontinuously with Native Range)
Extirpated (Native But Locally Extinct)
Expanded (Adjacent to Native Range)
Garden Persistent (Reproduces But Only In Gardens)
Not Present
Introduced but Eliminated
Native or Not Present
Introduced or Not Present
Native or Introduced
Native or Expanded
Expanded or Not Present
Expanded or Introduced
Native or Introduced or Not Present
Native or Expanded or Not Present
Expanded or Introduced or Not Present

Previously, these different scenarios were not distinguished, which made the old "Unknown" designation less useful to gardeners or those doing ecological restoration projects. There is a big difference between a plant that may be present in a region but is definitely native there if present, vs. one that is definitely present but may be introduced (and thus potentially invasive). In the first case, many people would choose to go ahead and plant the plant, whereas in the second case, people would be more cautious about planting it.

Our new maps distinguish between these subtleties by blending together and/or graying out colors. Colors are blended together when the method of establishment (i.e. native vs. introduced) in a region is unknown. When the presence/absence of the plant, on the other hand, is unknown, the color is grayed out, i.e. blended with the light gray color used on the map to denote the absence of the plant.

The result is a color scheme that we hope will be intuitive. However, in case it is less than fully clear, the maps are all accompanied by a legend showing what each color means. In case the above list seems overwhelming, rest assured that an overwhelming majority of maps have only a few colors, and the legend under each map shows only the colors in the map.

More Accurate Distinctions Between Native, Introduced, and Expanded

Our old maps only showed plant ranges, making no distinctions between areas where the plants were native vs. introduced or expanding their ranges. Although all the plants covered in the ERA are native to North America, or at least were thought to be native and marked as such by the USDA PLANTS database, they are not necessarily all native everywhere on the continent, and many of them have either been introduced across geologic divides, such as West Coast plants being introduced in the East or vice-versa, or have expanded their ranges to include areas far from their original ranges prior to European colonization of the continent.

This map shows the range of the Carolina laurelcherry (Prunus caroliniana) to the resolution of level 3 ecoregions; although it is native to the southeast (green), it has also been introduced (red) to the West Coast, and has also expanded its range northward (blue) into Arkansas and Tennessee adjacent to its native range.

The grayed-out red, green, and blue signify regions where the plant may or may not be present, but would be respectively introduced, native, or expanded if present. The bold teal color, a blend of green and blue, signifies that the plant is definitely present, and may have both native and expanded populations in that region.

This species is a case where the reported status of the plant differs between different sources; USDA PLANTS reports it (probably erroneously) as native everywhere it is found, whereas BONAP reports it as "adventive" (a non-standard term they often use for plants native to North America but not the locality) in California, Arkansas, and Tennessee, and the Tennessee-Kentucky Plant Atlas reports it as not native, and occurring in counties not reported in either of those two sources.

The new maps generally make these distinctions. To answer questions about a plant's native range and establishment method in a particular site, we have consulted numerous sources. In most cases our starting point is BONAP, as their maps tend to be more accurate than the USDA PLANTS database, and often make such distinctions, although the way they do so is inconsistent. We have also consulted various regional flora and other individual sources. Especially for assessing the ranges of plants outside the continental U.S., we also have been referencing Plants of the World Online (POWO) which is run by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London, UK. Our methodology for distinguishing introduced vs. expanded status is discussed below.

Limitations of the New Maps

Although the new maps represent a dramatic improvement over our earlier maps, there are still several major limitations.

Limited Data on Canada and Mexico

The construction of detailed plant ranges in Canada and Mexico is considerably more difficult and time-intensive. There is simply no counterpart to the USDA PLANTS database and BONAP for Canada or Mexico; both USDA PLANTS and BONAP show only province-level data for Canada and no data for Mexico. Furthermore, POWO and other sources that show plant range maps in these countries only show the coarsest levels of detail, often coarser than the level of states or provinces, and always much coarser than the scale of the level 3 ecoregions which we are using for our maps.

As such, only a small portion of our maps have been individually reviewed and verified to be accurate into Canada and/or Mexico. Over time, we hope to see the portion of maps that have been completed in this fashion, to increase, and our rate of completing these maps will likely be much faster now that we have new and improved tools, relative to the pace over the past two years.

Subjectivity in Labeling Introduced vs. Expanded

In many cases, such as when a plant has been introduced across a major geographic divide, to a new place far from its native range, it is clear a plant is introduced. In other cases, it is clear that a plant has expanded into new areas contiguously with its native range. However, in other cases, there can be considerable subjectivity in assigning a plant as introduced vs. expanded.

This photo © Sandy Wolkenberg, CC BY 4.0, Source, illustrates bigbract verbena (Verbena bracteata), a plant native, common, and abundant in the West, east to Ohio through Alabama, but now also found in disjoint populations to the East Coast, from Georgia to Maine.

Even though this plant "skipped over" many counties in establishing in new areas, we marked it as Expanded rather than Introduced for several reasons. It is a weedy plant, not generally planted in gardens, but rather, spreading on its own. And it is colonizing new habitats created by humans, such as degraded agricultural land and poorly-maintained urban areas, living in cracks in pavement of roads and sidewalk, and waste areas with sand, gravel, or rocks. It is small and inconspicuous, probably more widely distributed than reported, its populations are not separated by major geographic divides, and it is likely to expand and fill gaps in its range over time.

These most difficult cases consist of plants either whose native population distributions are already scattered, isolated, or disjoint, or ones that have numerous scattered or isolated native populations around the margins of their range, but extending well outside the regions where they are common. For such a species, when a new population is found which is known not to be fully native, it can be hard to know whether to label it as expanded or introduced.

When handling such cases, we made a number of arbitrary judgment calls based on a variety of factors including how far out of its original range the new population was, whether or not the two parts of the range are separated by areas the plant probably could not survive in, whether the plant is widely planted in gardens (and thus likely to escape from them), how the plant tends to spread naturally, and whether the plant has weedy or aggressively-spreading tendencies.

Some of these judgment calls were made hastily and will likely not hold up to scrutiny, so please contact us if you see a designation of a plant as introduced when you think it would make more sense to mark as expanded, or vice-versa, especially if you can provide a source or compelling reasoning explaining why one category makes more sense than the other.

Uncertainty notated on the maps themselves

Most of our new maps display significant uncertainty. The uncertainty has multiple origins.

Most sources, including both BONAP and USDA PLANTS, as well as many local and regional herbaria and plant atlases, use political boundaries such as states and counties, which intersect irregularly with ecoregions, making it hard to know for certain in which ecoregions a plant occurs. Whereas the ERA marked a plant as found in a region if it was reported in any county intersecting that region, we adopted a more conservative approach of marking it as present only if the county was entirely contained within the region, and, in the absence of other evidence supporting its presence, marking it as uncertain in the case of incomplete overlap.

Additionally, the records reported by various sources may be disputed or questionable. BONAP tends to notate such uncertainty in their maps, but does not always do so consistently. Books of regional flora nearly always describe this uncertainty verbally. The USDA, on the other hand, includes numerous dubious records without warning or explanation.

We also found some cases where the reported pattern of distributions of a plant looked unnatural and likely reflected an inconsistency in reporting, such as plants reported as present in nearly all counties of one state, but absent from most counties in an adjacent state. This might reflect different individuals or organizations with widely disparate resources or skill for locating plant populations, or it could reflect reports from some states considering disputed taxa as part of one particular species, while those gathering data in another state might report them under another species.

Our hope is that the reporting of uncertainty on our maps can achieve several goals, including:
  • To give greater confidence in our maps by us avoiding reporting something as definitely native to or present in a particular area when it is not.
  • To make others aware of the limitations of human knowledge in the area of plant's ranges and histories of expansion or human introduction.
  • To guide our further research, as well as encouraging others to contact us and share information with us, to resolve questions about a plant's status in the regions where our maps show uncertainty.

There Will Still Be Errors

As much as we have tried our hardest to be accurate and thorough, and notate uncertainty where warranted, these maps have been a massive undertaking, and it is inevitable that we make mistakes. All our sources have errors in them, and on top of these, we have introduced new errors of our own in our analysis of other sources and construction of our own maps, sometimes due to sloppy data entry or hitting a wrong key, but other times due to systematic errors. We have caught and corrected many of these errors, but it is likely that countless errors still persist.

If you see anything on our maps that looks questionable, or that you know to be false, please get in touch, especially if you can point us to sources or data to help refine or correct our maps. We strive to make these maps as accurate as possible, and the best way for us to do this is to get good feedback to help us refine them.

Checking Other Sources Yourself

We encourage you to use our maps only as one source among many. Our pages for each plant link to other databases, in most cases both USDA PLANTS and BONAP, and in many cases, numerous others. These two sites, with county-level data, can help answer fine-tuned questions about plant ranges not visible on our range maps. We hope to continue interlinking with other sites in the future as well, including POWO, iNaturalist, and more local and regional sources. You can read more about our interlinking with other databases in this previous blog post.

How to Tell Which Pages Have Which Maps

Because of inherent limitations and challenges in constructing these maps, our site is, and probably always will be, in varying stages of completeness. Currently, 1,121 articles still have the old ERA-based maps. 26 articles have new, individually-researched maps that have already addressed some of the shortcomings described above. Most of the maps are somewhere in-between, improved, but still with numerous limitations.

When you use the Search box or view the published plant articles on the Plants tab, the results display a map column to denote the status of the map for each article. Tentative maps that have not yet been constructed for Canada and Mexico, and that may have more errors, are shown grayed out. Over time, as we review these to a higher standard and complete the portions of the range in Canada and Mexico, we will mark them as verified (solid green). Plants for which only the old, ERA-based maps exist, have "ERA" listed in the map columns, and plants with no map show the empty set symbol (∅).

We are also planning to adjust the color of this slider to reflect whether the plant is native or introduced in North America, but we have yet to do this so presently all the sliders are green. There is a legend at the bottom of each search and plant listing page that explains what each designation means.

When you are viewing the article for a particular plant, you will also find a blurb under each map describing its accuracy and limitations.

Thank you for your interest and support!

To everyone who read to the end of this post, thank you so much for your interest, and we hope you enjoy the new maps and find them useful!

If you wish to support our continuing work, please consider becoming a donor. We accept recurring donations through Liberapay, and you can specify both the amount and frequency with which you will be charged, as well as whether it renews automatically or manually. Donations are anonymous, so be sure to get in touch with us if you want to be recognized for your contribution. And thank you to all those who are already supporting us, whether financially or otherwise!