PlantCollections — A Community Solution is the first free application developed to serve the needs of scientists, students and gardeners that provides access on the World Wide Web to information stored in plant record databases of botanic gardens and arboreta. This information supports research into plants; the environments in which they are found; and their growth, propagation, ornamental characteristics and causes of death in gardens.
Botanic gardens and arboreta are living natural history museums dedicated to the study of plants and their uses. They have stored the results of their studies in plant record departments for centuries. Before the age of computers, the information was stored in ledgers or card catalogs making attempts to analyze the data from multiple institutions impossible.
Botanic gardens and arboreta began to transfer their records to computer databases in the 1980s in an effort to improve the speed and accuracy with which scientists working in each garden could access their own data. Early in the 1990s, it was discovered that most of these databases could not exchange information with each other. The problem was each botanic garden used different computer software and ways of recording their data. These differences made communication between two or more databases impossible.
In a review of the North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC) of the American Public Gardens Association (APGA), Dr. Peter Raven, one of the preeminent plant scientists of our time and President of Missouri Botanical Garden, pointed out that most of the curatorial and conservation efforts of botanic gardens were wasted without the means to determine what plants were grown in other botanic garden collections; in reality their efforts were largely duplicated and unavailable to the larger scientific community.
To overcome the difficulties in the exchange of data, the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG), in partnership with APGA, NAPCC, the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center (UKNHMBRC) and fifteen botanic gardens and arboreta in the United States of America obtained $US666,326 in funding through a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in the Building Digital Resources category matched with $US675,834 in staff time from CBG and the other partners to make database records available on the World Wide Web in 2005.
The Project, named PlantCollections — A Community Solution (http://www.plantcollections.org) dedicated funds to build a new Web site for APGA (http://www.publicgardens.org) and support the related maintenance costs for three years. The remainder of the funds were dedicated to creating an open source (freely available for download on the Web) application using Web 2.O programming (allows users to interact with the Web site) that will work on any brand of software to provide access to copies of the records in botanic garden databases. This application allows users to collate records from different databases into a single report, access images that have been verified by taxonomic experts and create maps of where plants have been found in nature and/or are currently grown in botanic garden collections.
Figure 1: Geographic distribution of PlantCollections participants including lead partners in China and England.
An anonymous donor provided $US500,000 to expand the PlantCollections Project to botanic gardens and arboreta outside of the United States in 2007. Beijing Botanical Garden became the lead institution in China for the Project and has recruited the Nanjing Memorial Sun Yat Sen Botanical Garden, Shanghai Botanical Garden and the Chenshan Botanical Garden. The National Trust (U.K.) is the lead institution in Europe with extensive gardens and plant collections that provides access to plant records not heretofor available to the scientific and gardening communities.
A federated schema (list of information to be provided) was created after representatives of curators, taxonomists, ecologists, conservationists, weed scientists, horticulturists, educators, students and gardeners were surveyed to determine what kinds of information they needed. This list was compared to the information that the botanic garden databases contained to create a list of 161 fields of data that could be provided.
The information found by searching the PlantCollections Portal is grouped under major headings including: contact information for scientists and educators in each institution; the climate of each botanic garden; the common name (example shown in Figure 2) and scientific names of the plants in their collections; locations were plants have been collected in the wild; details related to environment of wild populations, other plants found growing near collection sites and the names of the people who made the collections; commercial sources where the plants have been obtained (note, a nursery that sold plants to a botanic garden several decades ago might not still have that plant available for sale); images; latitude and longitude to enable maps to be created; ornamental characteristics of the plants; methods used by botanic garden staff to propagate plants; and, the conservation status of the plants.
Figure 2: Basic search screen on the PlantCollections Portal with explanations.
Results from searches can be viewed on screen, downloaded as a spreadsheet, used to create maps or provide access to images.
Figure 3: Typical screen view of a search result of the PlantCollections Portal.
Morphbank, a National Science Foundation sponsored project dedicated to hosting images of biological images led by Florida State University School of Computational Sciences, joined the PlantCollections Project after funding was received and provides software, hardware and technical support for all PlantCollections images.
Figure 4: Information screen from Morphbank with thumbnail image enlarged.
Access to the data stored within plant record databases can be used for many purposes. Instructors and students can access the data and images to created maps containing images to support plant identification courses, for instance.
Figure 5: Spiraea images placed on a base map for a plant identification class taught at Chicago Botanic Garden.
Analyzing large amounts of climatic and plant data can require the use of very large computers but the results can be of great interest to the scientific community. Dr. Dave Vieglais from KUNHNBRC worked with staff at the San Diego Supercomputer to analyze the potential impact of Sudden Oak Decline if it were to spread beyond California.
Figure 6: Areas where Sudden Oak Death is adapted to the climate and native plants are shown in bright red.
The PlantCollections — A Community Solution project has used the expertise of staff from 29 organizations to create a Portal on the Web that accesses the information stored within plant record databases of botanic gardens and arboreta, regardless of the differences in software applications.
PlantCollections is the first natural history collections Portal to provide information to nonspecialists in a format and language that ordinary people can understand while maintaining the ability to support complex studies of climate change and other phenomenon.
The Portal is interactive, using Web 2.O programming. A user feedback form on the Portal provides an opportunity for you, the users, to guide the future development of this application. We hope to add podcasts and other features later. The data provided by all of the botanic gardens is constantly edited in an effort to provide the most accurate information possible but when you spot errors (misspelled words, etc.) please let us know!
About the authors
Boyce Tankersley is Director of Living Plant Documentation at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Email: btankers [at] chicagobotanic [dot] org
Christopher Dunn is Director of the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Email: cpdunn [at] hawaii [dot] edu
Min Cai Henderson is Project bioinformatics specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Email: mcai [at] chicagobotanic [dot] org
David Vieglais is Senior Scientist at the Biodiversity Research Center and Natural History Museum of the University of Kansas.
Email: Vieglais [at] ku [dot] edu
Greg Riccardi is Professor of Information in the College of Information at Florida State University.
Email: riccardi [at] cs [dot] fsu [dot] edu
Pam Allenstein is North American Plant Collections Consortium Coordinator for the American Public Gardens Association.
Email: pallenstein [at] publicgardens [dot] org
Dietrich Kappe is is a cofounder and the CTO of Pathfinder Development.
Email: dkappe [at] pathf [dot] com
Paper received 16 July 2008.
Copyright © 2008, First Monday.
Copyright © 2008, Boyce Tankersley, Christopher Dunn, Min Cai Henderson, David Vieglais, Greg Riccardi, Pam Allenstein, and Dietrich Kappe.
PlantCollections — A Community Solution
by Boyce Tankersley, Christopher Dunn, Min Cai Henderson, David Vieglais, Greg Riccardi, Pam Allenstein, and Dietrich Kappe
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 8 - 4 August 2008