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Flora of North America

An incomplete collaborative project to rigorously describe all plants occurring in the wild in North America north of Mexico.

Website: http://floranorthamerica.org/Main_Page

Flora of North America (FNA) is a massive collaborative project that represents the first time a single reference has been compiled to rigorously describe the distribution, taxonomic relationships, and morphological characteristics of all plants occurring in the wild in North America north of Mexico. The project is available both in 30 print volumes, and online. It is currently incomplete, but in terms of total coverage is more complete than not.

Even in its incomplete form, FNA represents an unparalleled resource in that it covers many species throughout the entirety of the continental US and Canada.

Where completed, FNA has articles on each plant as well as articles on genera and families. The articles have detailed, rigorous descriptions of each plant's morphology, in terms that are concise but not necessarily accessible to a general audience as they require significant knowledge to read and interpret. Unfortunately, the formerly-published Glossary for FNA has been taken out of print, and it was and still is incomplete. Although the glossary still exists online, it is not well-advertised; here is a link to the glossary in searchable form. There is some coarse information on range and distribution (typically only at the level of states/provinces with verbal descriptions adding slightly more detail in some cases), and only basic information on habitat. In general, the focus is on description and rigorous identification more than ecology, and the descriptions tend to be more reliable than the distribution information. In some cases, the articles describe and clarify taxonomic changes and/or uncertainties. Where such information exists it is highly useful.

Although on average FNA is highly rigorous and accurate, there are nevertheless some specific examples, including of ecologically important taxa, where its material exhibits severe deficiencies in ways that may not be apparent by reading the material itself. For example, their page on Phragmites australis lists no subordinate taxa and treats native and introduced populations as a single species, in spite of nearly all authorities that lump together Eurasian and American populations into one species, recognizing at least two distinct subspecies. Then the article wrongly reports the taxon as native to every US State in which it occurs, which is patently false as no source reports the native variety as ever having occurred in the southeasternmost states. More commonly than overt misinformation, some articles make specific choices of how to handle taxa where there is uncertainty or disagreement, and do so without sharing the reasoning or grounds behind these choices.

Previously, FNA was available on eFloras.org, and it is still viewable there, but it has since been moved to its own website, although its dedicated website is still in beta. Unfortunately, both of these websites still are insecure (http) and are not available in secure (https) form, so be mindful of this security risk when accessing them.

Another deficiency of the project is that it is decentralized and the information about who is in charge of what and how to contact these people is hidden from the public, and when present, obfuscated. Although pages list author names, the site provides no way to contact the authors. In many cases, contact info of these authors is not even available online. There are no contact forms, no primary listed emails or point-of-contact for certain subsets of the site, and no social media accounts, neither for the site as a whole nor for authors. Buried deep in the site's page on Administration is a staggeringly long listing of different editorial centers with contact info, but with negligible explanation on whom to contact for what sorts of issues. The site also links to a BitBucket account to report issues with the site, but this external site requires user account creation, there is no explanation of how to use the system nor any explanation of what sorts of concerns are intended to be reported through this system, and the system is far from user-friendly. Also, confusingly, FNA has renamed what was formerly called their Editorial Committee, to their "Board of Directors", a naming choice that flies in the face of convention both based on the board's role, and the fact that it is about 10 times the size of the typical board of directors of most organizations. Although the site lists emails for the members of this board, it is not at all clear whom to contact for what, and the list is so long as to be almost useless, for example, with 24 people listed as editors for the Vascular Plant section alone.

We have often used FNA as a source for our articles and ID guides, particularly as identification is concerned. We also note that FNA is used as a key source for many of the other sources we reference and databases we link to, such as POWO. However, we are skeptical of treating FNA as an authority in and of itself because of its deficiencies. As a collaborative effort between a massive number of different individuals and institutions, with unclear organization and oversight responsibilities, and a system for reporting errors or giving feedback that is beyond poor and marginally non-existant, we think it is best treated as a collection of primary literature published by a variety of authors and vetted through a hidden editorial process of uncertain and perhaps inconsistent quality. As such it is best treated as a self-published source, albeit an extraordinarily high-quality one.

We will happily update this page if FNA can address these deficiencies.