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Plants for the People

A project to share
images, identification guides,
and maps of world plants
freely on the Web

Organized by the
Missouri Botanical Garden,
National Biological Information Infrastructure,
New York Botanical Garden,
Smithsonian Institution,
Discover Life,
and others.

Rhamnus frangula, Glossy Buckthorn
Rhamnus frangula
Illustration by Cheryl Reese, 2004
Last updated: 26 October, 2005


Our minimum 1-year goal is to put images of 28,000 vascular plants of North America on-line. We seek partners who can help with North American species and with expanding our project to other regions of the world.

Join us

Individuals or organizations wishing to join us should contact one of the participants below. All welcome -- to succeed we need both the support of the experts and an army of volunteer enthusiasts and students who can help process and check the huge volume of information required.

  • John Pickering: pick@discoverlife.org & USA-706-542-1115
  • Pat Raven: pat.raven@mobot.org
  • Kay Yatskievych: kay.yatskievych@mobot.org & USA-314-577-9524
  • Discover Life support team: somebody@discoverlife.org & USA-706-542-6676.

Organizational meeting

Given our success at having multiple institutions and individuals work together to put information about ants rapidly on-line (see THEM -- World Ants), the participants at our meeting "How to study & monitor life on Earth," held in Washington, D.C., 21-22 February, 2005, decided to start a large project to do the same for plants.

Our discussion at the D.C. meeting addressed how to proceed. In setting a 1-year goal, we considered the following questions:

  • Mexico? -- We will include Mexican species if Patricia Koleff, Jorge Soberon, Heike Vibrans and their friends are game.
  • Grasses? -- We will include Cyperaceae and Poaceae when we have the support of experts who can deal with these species. Mary Barkworth?
  • Bryophytes? -- Ditto. Calling Bob Magill, Barbara Thiers, and Matt von Konrat.
  • All North American plants? -- Algae too? Rex Lowe and Rick McCourt?
  • Central America? -- Ian Giddy, Erick Mata, Steve Paton?
  • Elsewhere? -- Pat Raven, Lucy Rogo?
  • Images of types and live specimens? -- We need to provide high-resolution scanned images of type specimens for the taxonomic community, and, high-quality photographs to help the general public identify and appreciate the species they find. We also need to work with Tom Garnett, Tom Moritz, and other members of the library community to include the illustrations and text that they are scanning.
  • Scoring character-states? -- Yes, but we should only plan to score a limited number of characters for each species in year-1. It is too much to expect that we can build a guide that resolves all North American species within a year. While our ultimate goal is to build IDnature guides that resolve all species, in the first year we will focus on resolving species to small groups and on building local guides that can resolve the flora of target sites.
  • Snails, vertebrates, mushrooms? -- We will help organize similar efforts for other groups of organisms. In particular, we will work with Gary Rosenberg and the mollusc experts to help them put 100,000 species of shells on-line.
  • Available specimen databases for mapping? -- Lots. As part of Plants for the People, we will integrate existing geo-referrenced specimen data into the Global Mapper developed by Topozone.com and Discover Life.
  • Requests for software tools and improvements? -- Follow Sam Droege's lead. Never be satisfied. Recommend changes to John Pickering.
  • Potential partners? -- Everyone. In addition to educators and conservationists, make sure to include USDA, public health, and commercial interests.
  • Other issues? --
    • Leadership. Keep the hierarchy flat. This is largely a volunteer project. Participants will be listed alphabetically. We should consider the creed of the engineers who designed the Web: "We do not believe in kings, nor presidents, nor voting, but in rough concensus and working code." In short, let's work together and keep our eye on the goal -- Plants for the People.
    • Funding. We need to raise $150,000 immediately to provide the personnel to coordinate this project and provide technical training and support. The Polistes Foundation, the umbrella organization of Discover Life, will manage these funds. Leeanne Alonso, Patty Gowaty, Steve Hubbell, Mike Irwin, Chuck Lydeard, Laura Meyerson, John Pickering, Pat Raven, Peter Raven, Lucie Rogo, Gary Rosenberg, Cristian Samper, Annie Simpson, Mike Soukup, and Ed Wilson are our development team or observers, whether they know it yet or not!!!
    • Franchises. Non-profit organizations that participate in Plants for the People will be allowed to raise funds to support their efforts in the name of the project. They do not need to contribute a percentage of such funds to coordinate and maintain the overall project. Instead, they may use all the funds they raise to support their local efforts.
    • Fiduciary services. The Polistes Foundation is a 501-c-3 non-profit organization based Massachusetts. It will provide fiduciary services to Plants for the People for financial contributions that are not run through other organizations. It charges a rate of 5% of for these services. The Polistes Foundation has a 5-year cooperative agreement with the USGS's National Biological Information Infrastucture that may facilitate the transfer of Federal funds to the project.
    • Multiple languages. Plants for the People will provide free information to everyone. Thus, we must provide translations of our efforts into different languages. We encourage individuals to contribute to the project first in their native language and then help us to translate them into others.

Technology, support, & training

Discover Life will provide participants with Web tools that will enable them to build and edit checklists, contribute and process images, and score character-states to build IDnature guides. These tools are descibed below under Technology. Users should also read the on-line help at http://www.discoverlife.org/nh/id/20q/20q_help.html.

For technical support and training in using these tools, participants should email Denise Lim or somebody@discoverlife.org at Discover Life or phone USA-706-542-6676.

As funds become available, Discover Life will give training workshops at scientific meetings, participants sites, and at the University of Georgia in Athens. Again, please contact Denise about setting up such training workshops.

For technical details and general links to the checklists, images, guides, and maps please see

Next steps

Building checklists and identification guides to species is a multistep process that includes

  1. assembling and correcting a checklist -- an authoritative list of all species that we can use to link images, maps, and other information
  2. assembling existing photographs, illustrations, and scanned images
  3. photographing, illustrating, and scanning species for which information does not exist in electronic form
  4. determining and illustrating character-states that will be used in identification guilds
  5. scoring character-states to build on-line identification guides
  6. mapping the geographic distributions of species from specimen-level information and other sources
  7. assembling and correcting local checklists that allow us to focus on subsets of species from smaller geographic areas, such as countries, states, counties, parks, or schoolyards.

By the end of April, 2005, we plan to have built the framework on which to present information about North American species. We will start by integrating the information from databases at the Field Museum, Missouri Botanical Garden, New York Botanical Garden, North Carolina Botanical Garden, and Smithsonian Institution into Discover Life's tools.


In March and early April, Discover Life put large new disks on its servers and implemented a new tool for contributors to manage and upload large numbers of images, associated text, and metadata. EcoLibrary, http://www.discoverlife.org/ed/ecolibrary, uses this tool and showcases how we intend to serve images and associated text for Plants for the People.

Between mid-April and June, we will assemble and start serving the first 200,000 images contributed to Plants for the People.

Bob Magill has contributed a species list from Missouri Botanical Garden's Tropicos database. We have processed this list into a series of nested checklists:

and corresponding guides:
which although they have a set of initial character-states that we will refine, have only been scored for "Division" and "Family."

While these links provide a rapid start to our project, this data upon which they are based were extracted from Tropicos several years ago and need considerable work to clean it up. Specifically, we must

  • split out certain families and genera, such as the 3,797 members of the Asteraceae, for example, so that the checklists and guides are smaller and faster to manipulate,
  • pending a conversation between Bob Magill and Barbara Thiers, add Bryophyta species, aiming within year-1 to illustrate bryophytes to genera but not to species,
  • update the families in which we have placed genera to reflect the most current phylogeny, assigning the fern genera to families in the process,
  • reconcile the species names with The Flora of North America, other databases, and with taxonomic experts for each family and genus.

In parallel to cleaning up the taxonomy, we propose to integrate over 200,000 images by mid-June. These images will include photographs, illustrations, and scanned herbarium specimens that are in digital databases at the Field Museum, Missouri Botanical Garden, New York Botanical Garden, North Carolina Botanical Garden, Smithsonian Institution, and Discover Life.


We plan to integrate image databases into Plants for the People. To search these via thumbnails, please see


We need to identify family and generic experts who are willing to contribute, provide quality control, and oversee the work of students and other volunteers. We envision forming small teams that will be responsible for a subset of the flora. Ideally, each individual will take responsibility for processing about 100 species.

Remember this is the Web, we work quickly and correct our errors as we find them.
Please send names, information, feedback and corrections to somebody@discoverlife.org

Under revision

Name Institution E-mailPhone Expertise
Mary Ball Carson Newman College mball@cn.edu865-471-3254
Steve Baskauf Vanderbilt University stevebaskauf@vanderbilt.edu615-343-4582 middle Tennessee
Tom Garnett Smithsonian Institution GarnettT@si.edu202-633-2238
Ian Giddy New York University ian.giddy@nyu.edu212-998-0426
Patricia Koleff CONABIO pkoleff@xolo.conabio.gob.mx525-55-528-9101
Chuck Lydeard National Science Foundation clydeard@nsf.gov703-292-7142
Erick Mata Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad, Costa Rica emata@inbio.ac.cr

Bob Magill Missouri Botanical Garden magill@mobot.org314-577-5161
Tom Moritz American Museum of Natural History tmoritz@amnh.org212-769-5417
Steve Paton Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute patons@si.edu507-212-8097 Panama
John Pickering University of Georgia pick@discoverlife.org706-542-1115
Pat Raven Missouri Botanical Garden pat.raven@mobot.org314-577-9595
Peter Raven Missouri Botanical Garden praven@mobot.org314-577-5111
Lucy Rogo BioNET International l.rogo@bionet-intl.org571-239-8798
Gary Rosenberg Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia rosenberg@acnatsci.org215-299-1033
Rusty Russell Smithsonian Institution russellr@si.edu202-633-0943
Annie Simpson USGS-NBII asimpson@usgs.gov703-648-4281
Jorge Soberon CONABIO jsoberon@xolo.conabio.gob.mx525-55-528-9101
Barbara Thiers New York Botanical Garden bthiers@nybg.org718-817-8622
Gayle Tonkovich Field Museum gtonkovich@fmnh.org312-665-7429
Melissa Tulig New York Botanical Garden mtulig@nybg.org718-817-8740
Heike Vibrans Colegio de Postgraduados en Ciencias Agricolas Museum heike@colpos.mx52 (595) 95 20 200 ext 1335 Malezas; Mexico
Matt von Konrat Field Museum mvonkonrat@fieldmuseum.org312-665-7864 Liverworts; World
Peter White North Carolina Botanical Garden pswhite@unc.edu919-962-6939
George Yatskievych Missouri Botanical Garden george.yatskievych@mobot.org314-577-9522
Kay Yatskievych Missouri Botanical Garden kay.yatskievych@mobot.org314-577-9524 Wildflowers; Indiana, USA

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