IMLS Funds Online Flora
Supports web-based key and kiosk for identifying NE woody plants
— Bill Brumback, Conservation Director
The Society has received a $150,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to produce a basic informational key to the woody plants of New England for the web and an interpretative station with a touch screen—the TREEosk kiosk—for the Garden in the Woods. We will develop this Online New England Flora as an extension of our upcoming (printed) field manual to the New England flora, written by the Society’s research botanist, Arthur Haines. This new field manual will be the most comprehensive botanical reference of the region's plant taxa to be written in the last 25 years.
The Society recognizes, however, that the future of field botany education—the basis for continued efforts in native plant conservation—lies in electronic media. Through this year-long project, we will learn how to develop the most usable keys for different levels of botanical skill and interest as part of a multi-year plan to develop online keys to the region’s entire 3,500+ taxa.
With the IMLS grant, we will construct a prototype of a Simple Key that will allow users to identify any of the approximately 300 species of woody plants (trees, shrubs, and vines) found in New England. We selected woody plants for our prototype as this is a relatively small group of taxa, and the distinguishing features among species are relatively apparent.
Identifying plants online
A Simple Key begins with plant life form (tree, shrub, vine, herbaceous plant, unknown), then asks the user to choose flower color, leaf arrangement, and a few other simple plant characters. The website’s software matches the plant characters selected by the user to a set of plant species and then presents a series of photographs of target plants from which the user makes a final selection. A selection presents the user with the plant’s Taxon Page, which will include the plant’s scientific name, common name, synonyms, plant description, flowering dates, nativity (origin), range map, habitat, images (both photographs and illustrations), rarity, and other information.
The user can delve further (e.g., ethnobotanical uses, edibility, horticultural uses) as links to other references or sources of information will also be provided. We anticipate that this software will also facilitate offline use of the Flora, as users will be able to download or print Taxon Pages directly and take them into the field.
Identifying woody plants at an electronic station
The TREEosk will be an interactive station for one or more visitors at a time to attempt identification of woody plants. One of the stations will be accessible in the Society’s Garden Shop. Using the Simple Key, preserved and fresh plant materials, along with interpretive signage developed by the project team, visitors, after touring the Garden, can use the TREEosk to help identify woody plants growing in the Garden.
Developing related curriculum
Target audiences for the grant include the beginning level plant enthusiast or student, more experienced amateur botanists, and environmental educators. At the outset of the project, we wiil invite museum, nature center, and academic educators to join a curriculum task force that will develop appropriate curriculum to use with the Simple Key prototype and evaluate website use by our target audiences.
Creating citizen botanists
A foundation of botanical knowledge is critical for plant conservation projects and advocacy. The TREEosk comprises the first phase in the Society’s long-range project to produce the Online New England Flora, an accessible resource for people seeking information about New England’s wild plants. This tool, this connector, will help assure a vibrant, promising future for the region’s cherished habitats and landscapes.