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Interlinking Databases for Plant Research

November 11th, 2020 by Alex Zorach

We have begun interlinking our plant articles with other plant websites and databases, so that you can use our site as a reference to find pages on a given plant species, all in one place.

When researching plants online, it quickly becomes apparent how many different resources there are. A particular species will have detailed articles on certain websites, but nothing on others. And while some resources are easily found through a web search, other valuable resources are harder to discover.

There are multiple reasons for these disparities, including the regional distribution of plants, the incompleteness of databases, the different focuses of various sites, and the fact that some sites are more easily crawled by search engines than others.

Regionalism: Global, National, Local

Every plant is limited in range, so it makes sense that most plant resources would be limited to a particular region. But there are plant databases and websites covering various scopes from hyper-local all the way up through global.

Global Plant Websites

There are a few global plant resources, like Plants of the World Online (POWO) and eFloras.org, and resources that cover more than just plants, such as iNaturalist and Wikipedia. However, even if in theory each of these sites could cover all plants, in practice they are spotty.

Some Wikipedia articles are better than others, and the articles on many more esoteric plant species don't even exist yet. Plants native to other regions of the world often only have articles in languages other than English. Similarly, POWO has a fairly complete skeleton of data, but the pages are more extensively developed for some species (and some regions and taxonomic groups) than others. eFloras.org is a collection of various online manuals of plant systematics from different parts of the world, each of which has regional scope, and each of which is also incomplete. And while iNaturalist has a skeleton of pages for most documented species, the actual data tends to concentrate on conspicuous, easily-identified plant species, and regions near population centers and/or popular ecotourism spots.

National or Continent-Based Resources

There are also numerous resources at the level of North America as a whole, or the US, three of the biggest being the USDA PLANTS database, BONAP, and Flora of North America (which is included in eFloras.org). There are also a lot of other databases associated with U.S. federal agencies, such as the Fire Effects Information System (FEIS), or the Ecoregional Revegetation Application (ERA) run by the US Federal Highway Administration. The FEIS has only limited information on plants, but has extensive ecological information for species on which they have articles, and which tends to cover nearly all of the most important tree species across the continent, as well as a selection of the more important grasses and herbaceous plants.

Regional and Local Resources

On top of these there are regional and local resources, such as Native Plant Trust's Go Botany, which covers New England, or Missouri Botanical Garden's Plant Finder which covers plants native to a broad area, as well as introduced plants, but tends to write from the perspective of their use in gardening and landscaping in the Missouri area. On top of this are numerous state-sponsored educational resources, such as state agricultural extensions, material hosted on various university sites, and various herbaria.

Different Resources for Different Interest

Each of the resources above has its own purpose. For example, eFloras.org and Flora of North America serve as authoritative sources on plant systematics and taxonomy, with in-depth information that an expert can use to distinguish tough-to-identify plants, but that may not be as accessible to a layperson. Some sites focus more on the ecology of plants in the wild, considering factors like habitat and faunal associations, whereas others are more focused on uses of plants, such as in landscaping or gardening, or other uses like how The Wood Database describes the physical properties, uses, and workability of different species used for lumber.

Limitations of Web Search

Web searches are useful, but they can be unreliable for exhaustively checking whether or not something exists. Pages may not be indexed, or search results may not be returned in a consistent order, with one database or resource ranking higher for certain searches but ranking lower or not showing up at all for others.

Collecting Information in One Place

There are great benefits to having one single resource or reference that you can use as a branching off point for other resources. And here is where our latest undertaking comes in.

bplant.org can be a hub connecting many different plant databases, entry-by-entry.

We have a total of 25200 pages corresponding to most plants documented occurring in the wild in North America. Each of these is already linked to its corresponding page on the USDA Plants Database, but we have begun linking them with other databases as well. You will now find a "Links" section on the page for each plant, including stub pages where we have yet to research and write any of our own text.
Screenshot of New Links SectionYou can find a Links section on any of our plant pages that have been interlinked with other databases, even if they are stub pages that do not have a full article yet.

The main goal of the Links section is to make our site useful as a resource where you can see what other sites or databases have an entry for a particular plant. However, there is an additional beneficial side-effect, which is that these links may also help search engines to discover some of the lesser-known plant websites and see them as relevant and useful so that they too are returned higher in search results. The landscape of plant websites is not as interconnected as it could be, and we hope that our linking to sites can encourage and facilitate all sites to link to each other.

"About This Site" Links

Note also that next to each main link is an "About This Site" link; these links take you to a summary page that describes what the database is, including relevant points such as what its scope is (global, national, regional, or local) and its focus, both of which can be important for knowing how to interpret the material. I.e. if the reference is local but from outside your region, its material on ecology might be less relevant, or its commentary on plant ID might omit species you need to check against in your area.

How much is added?

As of publishing this post, we have interlinked five websites, for a total of 30,704 interlinked records. You can find a list of the websites we have interlinked with, including both completed and in-progress projects, under the new Websites section of our site.

Run a plant website? Please get in touch!

If you run a plant website and are interested in any help interlinking your site with ours or with other databases we have already listed, please get in touch with us. We would be glad to help you, such as by sending you exported tables of data that could allow you to automatically import links rather than having to type them in one-by-one.

And, of course, if we haven't linked to your website yet, we are also interested in doing so, and you can help us by sending us data to help us automate the interlinking process!

Try It Out!

Try out the new tools by typing a species of interest, by common name or scientific name, into our search box at the top of each page, and seeing what links show up!

A New Homepage, Highlighting Our Articles

July 29th, 2020 by Alex Zorach

We have freshly redesigned our homepage! The new page features recently updated plant articles, ecoregion articles, and ID/comparison guides, and a table of contents to navigate them.
A screenshot of the new homepage.

The aim of the redesign is to highlight recent changes to the site, including newly published and updated material. The goal is both to make the material more accessible, and to show how actively the site is being developed and how much unique material can be found here.

Lately, the material has been updated frequently, sometimes daily and certainly weekly. If you check the homepage often, you will see just how much progress is being made.

Behind-The-Scenes Improvements

The changes to the homepage utilize some groundwork that has other benefits. One of them is improving the system for cropping images, which enables a snippet to be more easily included in material that is shared on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

A screenshot of the new image format as being displayed on Facebook when sharing a plant article.

Prior to these changes, some of the site's images would display gracefully when articles were shared, but others would be awkwardly cropped or shown at a low resolution. Now, articles have a consistent crop dimension which is optimal for sharing, and which is chosen manually to display nicely. All new articles will use the new system, and it is just a matter of a few days before all older articles are moved to the new system.

We hope that improving the shareability of our articles can help our educational material reach a broader audience through social media.

Please consider supporting us!

This site is currently supprted 100% by user donations, which help ensure that the site can continue to be developed. We currently have relatively few donors, so even small donations can make a big difference. Please read our FAQ if you have any questions about giving, or just go to donate on Liberapay. You can always find these links in our site's footer!

A False Recovery, But North Carolina's Ecoregions are Complete!

June 9th, 2020 by Alex Zorach

Unfortunately, shortly after my last post about recovery from COVID-19, I had a relapse, and my recovery from this turned out to be much slower and more irregular than the first time around. Initially, this relapse was scary and confusing because I had not ready any accounts of people with similar experiences. However, it is now clear that a certain portion of people have illnesses that drag on for weeks or even a few months, with recurring, sometimes bizarre symptoms.

There has now been some media coverage of people with experiences similar to mine, such as this article on people who have COVID-19 symptoms for months in The Guardian, and an article about patients experiencing relapses of COVID-19 symptoms in Vox.

I have still been working on the site off and on, but, as before, have been neglecting the social media presence and blog updates. I am finally feeling mostly better again, and I'm hoping that this time I will be able to get back to my usual level of work without any further setbacks.

I also want to highlight some of the work I did get done over the past couple months.

Some Excitement About North Carolina

Ecoregion articles are now finished for North Carolina and I have begun adding images for many of them. North Carolina is a fascinating state with respect to ecology and plant diversity. It contains the highest-elevation parts of the southern Appalachians, and thus is home to many northerly plant species that reach the southern limits of their range, such as the red spruce (Picea rubens) at the highest elevations, or yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) at slightly lower ones. These are in turn part of forest communities that in many ways resemble more northerly forest types.

Farther east, the state also has vast expanses of swamps, peatlands, flatwoods, and coastal wetlands and barrier islands, each of which supports its own unique plant communities. It is also geologically diverse, and the diversity of terrain and soil types further drives plant diversity.

You can explore the map here:
This clickable map can also be found on the page on North Carolina. We have similar maps for all lower 48 U.S. states, but the articles are only finished for the states in the northeast. Follow the link in the footer to see maps of other states.

We also published a page on beetleweed (Galax urceolata), an herbaceous plant that is most common in the southern Appalachians, that many people may be familiar with due to its widespread use in flower arrangements, a practice that can sometimes threaten wild populations of this plant.
Photo by Heidi Large, Public Domain, Source.

Enjoy, and hopefully, stay tuned for more active social media postings again!